Episode 43: Heli Kennedy

An hour-long conversation with Heli Kennedy, writer for several projects continuing the saga of the hit TV series Orphan Black, including Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, a book series from Serial Box; she has also written for Ubisoft computer games, and is a screenwriter who has written, produced, and acted in short films that have screened around the world.

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The Introduction

Heli Kennedy

Heli Kennedy has authored multiple comic book series for the critically acclaimed TV show Orphan Black, including Deviations, an alternate-universe plotline that reimagines the first season of the show.  Also a screenwriter, she has written, produced, and acted in award-winning short films that have screened around the world.  Her latest work includes consulting and writing on Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, a Serial Box book series that continues the clone saga through print and audiobooks read by the show’s star, Tatiana Maslany.  She’s currently writing on an unannounced project for Ubisoft, where she also wrote for the upcoming “play as anyone” game, Watch Dogs: Legion.  Leaning into her fantasy genre nerdiness, Heli is working on a novel entitled The Penny Discount.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Heli.

Hi, thanks for having me on.

This will be interesting. Now, I always like to start off by figuring out what I have in common with whomever I’m speaking with. And oddly enough, we have an odd connection, in that we’re going to be talking about your work on Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, and you’ve also done some work on Orphan Black comics before that. But Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is being narrated by Tatiana Maslany, of course, who starred in Orphan Black. And I’ve known Tat since she was a little girl. So, there’s an odd connection for you.

Well, that’s kind of wild. You said that you had taught her and directed her?

Well, I didn’t exactly teach her. But she was in…there’s a young people’s theatre group here called Do It with Class Young People’s Theatre that she was a member of. And when she was eleven, I think? It was ninety…oh, I shouldn’t say that. Probably give away her age. Anyway, it was 1997, because it’s the year I got married and I had directed a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in which all the dwarves were played by little girls with beards. And Tat was one of them.

Amazing. Do you remember which dwarf she was?

They weren’t the usual Disney dwarves. It was…they had all different names, so I don’t remember that at all. I cast my newlywed wife as the evil queen, which I thought was a rather brave choice on my part.

That’s quite brave, actually. Right.

And, of course, my joke recently has been, if I’d known then what I know now, that Tatiana could have played all seven dwarves.

Yeah, you’re right. You could have had a really unique play on your hands.

So, I’m gonna start by taking you back into the mists of time. And…I always say that…and see how you first got interested in telling stories. I saw in an interview with you that when you were about seven years old, you started creating your own stories based on Tolkien. So, is that kind of when you got going and how did that all come about? And where were you growing up, for that matter?

I grew up in downtown Toronto, in Canada. And yeah, I started writing when I was six. It started with Nancy Drew. I was really into kind of the creepy, strange story…well, that’s what I thought…as the storylines in Nancy Drew when I was six years old. And I was also really into Star Trek. And I thought it would be really neat to combine the two things. Yeah. It was a little bit of a genre mash-up. And so I started rewriting Nancy Drew books with a kind of sci-fi element. So I would have her, you know, finding a secret passageway and a hidden door that would lead her to another dimension where there would be strange aliens or giant eyeballs. It was pretty surrealistic, I have to say. But, yeah, I started writing those, and it really came from this sense when I was at school that, you know, writing was something that was, you know, an impossible thing to do. You know, I would see kids older than I was writing pages, like foolscap, full of, like, story, just pages and pages of story, and I was really impressed by it and daunted and thought I couldn’t do it, so I kind of threw myself at it to try and do it. And I’ve been writing ever since.

When I was seven, I was writing picture books for my class and reading them, and I kind of spent the whole year writing books for my classmates. And I had what I thought was a small publishing company at the time. And then I got into Tolkien and started writing alternate storylines set in Middle Earth, set in Tolkien’s fiction, because I really, really enjoyed it and connected with some of the themes, and I wanted more female characters. So, my best friend and I created storylines with more female characters. And then it kind of…from there, it morphed into…I was really into collecting old movie memorabilia as I grew up, too, like things from the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, and it got me into filmmaking, and I started to make films with my friend. And she and I kept working on storylines and brought it into…we started to develop filmmaking skills, I guess? And then I was getting grant money to make films, I think, like, right after high school, and I just kept going.

You mentioned Tolkien and Nancy Drew. Were there other books that were kind of important to you that got you hooked on telling stories?

Yes…

Most of us start out as readers, so…

Yeah, exactly. There was a book called Something from Nothing, it’s a picture book, and I think my second-grade teacher read it to the class and it really impacted me, ’cause it’s a story about…I think it’s about a little boy and his blanket, and in the end he ends up making something out of the blanket, when…I think it wears down to a tiny skirt—now I could be completely misremembering this, but—it wears down into a tiny square, because it becomes ratty, and then he makes something new out of it and he makes something seemingly from nothing. And it’s a story about him and his grandfather, I think. And I think the message of, you know, creating something out of nothing and having a profound impact by creating something out of nothing, that it was positive and could connect with someone else, that really hit me. And that book influenced me a lot because I think writing is largely about creating…seemingly something out of nothing, I mean, it’s not nothing, you use your experiences and people you meet and ideas and what’s going on in the world around you to form stories…but it’s something that you can just create, no matter what you have, if you don’t have anything else. Like, you know, filmmaking is an expensive medium, lot of collaboration, time and money. Same with videogames, which is what I’m working on right now. But writing alone was something that felt fulfilling because I could really build off of things I could pull from the ether and then connect with people over a story I wrote. So that was really impactful for me.

It’s interesting to mention a book like that because I don’t remember a lot of the books I read as a small reader, but one that always stuck with me was Harold and the Purple Crayon. I think it’s Harold.

Yeah, I remember that.

Yeah, and he would draw things, and again, creating things out of nothing with his purple crayon. And I hadn’t thought about that for a while, but when you were mentioning this other book that sort of had that same idea, that was one that captured my interest early on, and maybe that was a foreshadowing of me becoming a writer later in life.

Yeah. I think that the books that we read when we’re really young, have a lot…a huge impact on us. It took me years to really remember that book in particular and make that connection. It kind of just came back one day in the last five, six years. And I started to really think about it and I realized I’d taken more from that story than I had, you know, really given it credit for until later in life. And there was another Canadian author, I think he’s in Toronto, Michael Bedard and…I don’t know, maybe I didn’t pronounce the last name properly…but he wrote a book called Redwork, and it was set in the neighborhood that I grew up in, or so it seemed, because it held many of the same elements, like the same park and a movie theater that used to exist on the main street in my neighborhood. And it was about alchemy, so it had this kind of, you know, this otherworldly fantasy aspect to it, but it also felt really grounded because I could relate to it because it was set in my city. And yeah, that heavily influenced me, too. It had a lot of mystery. It was dark. Yeah. Yeah, that book stuck with me. A lot of things that I read along with Tolkien, with The Hobbit in particular, the stuff that I think informed me the most happened probably in the first ten years, if I go back to really think about, you know, well, what do I like to write about, and what are the topics I gravitate towards or the genres? It was really those first ten years, I think.

You mentioned that you became more focused on filmmaking. I’m curious, what kind of equipment were you using in high school? I don’t know, let’s see…you’re younger than I am. So, when I think back to when I was in high school, there was absolutely no possibility that any of us were gonna be doing that, unless it was with, you know, a Super 8 film camera. But what were you doing, using, to make short films in that time?

Well, when I first started, I think I was eleven or something like that, and we had a kind of a Sony, just a camcorder or a VHS camcorder, and we would record and then kind of edit with the VCR to VCR kind of, style of editing. So it wasn’t, you know, really high-quality in the beginning and it was an onboard mike, and we were always kind of disappointed with what we’ve created because we had really high standards for what we wanted to make and we just couldn’t meet them. But later in high school, I had a friend that I was making films with, and he had an XL1. So that was like a camera, that was a mini-DV camera at the time, it was made by Canon, and we could connect a boom mike to it so we could have a nicer microphone, and it shot…it was, you know, for indie filmmaking, it was not…it wasn’t…it was like a prosumer camera, I would say. It wasn’t like, pro, it wasn’t like…you weren’t going to get film quality out of it, but you could do, you could shoot pretty well with that. And so, that’s what we started to use later on, cause my friend had one, and he had saved up in high school, and he shot a feature film in high school with it and it traveled the festival circuit.

So, yeah, we were using something that was pretty decent and then editing on Final Cut Pro on a laptop because by that time, though, everything was still…there was an analog element…you could convert to digital files by plugging the camera into your laptop and importing footage. So there…we had the ability to do way more with stuff at home than ever before. It’s…now, kids can just shoot on iPhones and edit, like, on the phone, and uploaded it to YouTube, and they have, you know, videos and videos and channels that are filled with content. Back then, it took a little more time, but it was kind of the beginning of that era where you could just make videos at home and readily like, you know, put them on a computer and send them out over the Internet in a compressed file or whatnot.

And you were writing the scripts for these short films that you’re making at the time?

Yeah, some of them I did write and some of them I kind of story-edited and produced, and I acted in some of them as well. And I wrote funding packages for some of them. But yeah, I was kind of…it was a kind of a wear-all-the-hats situation with indie filmmaking. You know, we had a lot of friends. We were all in kind of art schools or alternative schools filled with kids with different skill sets because we were given the opportunity to focus on specific skill sets. So we had friends who could sound edit and musician friends who could score it. So it was really kind of, you know, learning to work with other people with really specialized skills even at that age. And then also, like, figuring out, “Oh, my God, like, how do I sync up sound? And how do you run a set so that you get all your shots in a day? How does lighting work?” So, I kind of did a lot of…many of the jobs that you’d find on a film set in a strange indie way.

That sounds like a great experience for learning skills that you’d be able to translate into a professional career later, which I guess is what you did.

Yeah, exactly. I think that if I hadn’t, you know, if I hadn’t just jumped into it and forced myself to try and figure all of it out and learned and to have done all those jobs, I don’t think…on these projects…I don’t think I would have built the skill set. I went to school, I did a post-grad for one year, at Sheridan College, it’s a college in Ontario, and they had really good equipment at the time, where…after I had been making films, I went there and we kind of got the opportunity to work with a bigger group of people and run it…run our projects as though we were on professional set. And that was also a really good experience because it was completely hands-on and everything we did, we had to run like a union set. So then, it expanded my knowledge and ability to, you know, figure out how to build a film and actually achieve your day and make a little product out of it.

I actually know a lot of kids who went to Sheridan, because of the aforementioned Do It With Class Young People’s Theatre, that’s a place where many of those kids go to study musical theater. I think there’s some…I know there’s some there right now who were classmates of my daughter who are now at Sheridan.

Yeah, they have a great musical theater program. It’s a…many other students go on to book really big roles in plays in the city here.

It’s a fun thing about knowing people in theater and film in Canada in that, you know, I’m watching The Expanse, Season 3, I think it was, and there’s this familiar-looking Martian marine, and I thought, “Wait a minute, I saw her when she was a kid doing musical theater,” because she’s from Regina, she’d gone and, you know, she’s in Toronto now making TV. So, you know people in the business up here, and it’s not a huge pool of people, so you start to see people that you know in shows. Now, you did some acting as well, did you not?

Yeah, I did a little bit of acting, mainly in some of my indie stuff, a few commercials, and small projects here and there. And I…initially I started acting because we needed people to act in our films that we were making. And then later, I kind of really got, I got…I was bitten by the bug and I also felt that it really enriched my writing. I started to see a change in the way I approached scenes as a writer. Learning what actors needed or didn’t need on the page in terms of building a scene was…I took away a lot from acting class that way. And then I did a little bit of directing. I directed a couple of small shorts and I learned a lot. I had…I found it a lot easier to talk to actors because I had been doing it and I could sort of try to put myself in their place and figure out where the roadblocks were and what we were trying to do. So, I thought it was an invaluable experience for filmmaking and writing as a whole.

And that’s one reason I brought it up. I ask…you know, I’m mostly talking to novelists, and…but there’s quite a few that I’ve talked to who have a little bit of theatrical background or a lot of theatrical background in some case, as do I, ’cause I’m, you know, I’m an Equity actor and I’ve done with professional and shows just for fun, too…but I’ve done a lot of them. And I always find that the process of acting and creating a character is very similar to the process of creating a character when you’re writing. And that’s one thing that I think pretty much everybody I’ve talked to has agreed, that acting and inhabiting a character in that fashion informs their writing when they’re trying to create the character on the page.

Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think, you know, just sitting down, and, you know…when you’re working on other people’s IP or other franchises, you’re thrown characters that are maybe not necessarily something you would immediately generate yourself and plug into a story, which is extremely valuable when you’re growing as a writer and to push yourself forward in your skillset. But when I get thrown a character that I just, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, how am I going to write this character?” I go through the motions of what I would do if I was given scenes in a class and I had to, you know, inhabit the skin of someone very, very different from me. So, I try to draw on myself as much as I can and look at other people that I know and build on characters using what I learned in class.

And I would think that the…I mean, I’ve directed some stage shows and I find that that helps, too. And I would think directing film might be even more helpful when it comes to visualizing scenes in your head when you’re writing, for example, the Orphan Black book, which we’ll talk about a more detail…that sort of sense of where everybody is and in the visual appearance of what you’re trying to convey. Does that also play into it?

Yeah, definitely. Right now, I’m writing for a video game studio, Ubisoft, and I’m on my second big kind of triple-A game with them, and it’s all screenwriting and it’s all blocking and it’s very specific to environments because it’s animated. So, I think a lot in shots and blocking and positioning and logic of, you know, well, how will this scene play out literally, physically in a space? And I think that, yeah, filmmaking definitely you think like that when you write a script. But I was writing comics as well for Orphan Black, and that was a lot…there was a lot of, kind of…I would say it felt like directing a bit when you’re writing. You feel like you’re a filmmaker with all the money in the world and no money at all because it’s very limited in page count and how many cells you have on each page, you know, how many images you’re gonna put in there and how are you gonna use your edits, every time you turn a page it felt like an edit. So, yeah, I thought a lot in terms of shots that way and tried to really economize with editing in my mind. That’s definitely like a muscle that takes a while to build and I’m still building it. You know, I still learn…every time I write a scene, I learn something new about, you know, what succeeds or doesn’t succeed in it. But yeah, I would say it’s invaluable in terms of writing, and it also…when you have to think in limited edits or timeframes, like, you have 90 seconds to do a scene or three minutes or ten minutes, you…it pushes you to get in and out faster and get really creative at how you can get to the heart of what needs to happen and how you can keep it compelling in that small window of time.

I like the fact that you referred to it as a muscle that you have to work on, because that’s actually a metaphor I use all the time when I’m…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so I’m meeting with a lot of want-to-be writers or starting-up writers who come in, and I’ll say, “You know, you just have to write,” that the act of writing is like exercising or practicing figures if you’re a figure skater or, you know, anything you want to be good at, the very act of doing it is the practice you need to build that muscle, and writing is no different.

Yeah, that’s completely true, Ed. I’d say that’s probably true of the arts in general. I used to draw a lot as a kid and…I’d draw, like, fantasy maps and paint, I oil painted and sketched. And, you know, I’ve stopped since I made the decision to pursue writing and filmmaking and acting as a career. And now I’m getting back into it and I’m definitely shaky. I’ve lost, I’ve literally lost muscle memory in my hand. But it’s like mind-body connection that you have to keep going. And I would say writing is the same. Acting is definitely the same. You haven’t auditioned for a while and you get thrown an audition, you feel the rust flaking off of you.

Playing an instrument is the same, too, for sure. I used to play piano a lot and I haven’t played it much for the last few years. And whenever I sit down to play now, it’s like, I kind of remember how to do this, but…yeah, it’s the same thing. Well, I wanted to talk about…we’ve already mentioned it, of course. Orphan Black…so, how did you fall into doing new material for Orphan Black? I guess you started with the comic, Orphan Black: Helsinki…was that the first thing that you did?

Yeah, the first one was Helsinki. And then I pitched and did a comic series called Deviations, which was an alternate-universe comic series in which Beth Childs, a clone that you see in the first five minutes, so this only a minor spoiler…

Very minor.

Very minor…in which she lives, because the beginning of the series starts on one clone, Sarah Manning, and another clone, Beth Childs, and we see that Beth Childs commits suicide. So, I rewrote the series based on that. And then I pitched a third comic series and I started writing that, called Crazy Science, that continued the story of…now this will be big spoilers, so maybe I won’t say everything…it continues at the…where they leave off at the end of the series, at the end of season five. So, I continued the show’s plot line through the comics. Then…we didn’t get to finish that series, unfortunately. But yes, so I started with that. And then I was referred to a publishing company in New York, Serial Box, who had been in communication with the production company that produced Orphan Black. And I was referred as a consultant because at that time the show’d been over for just…almost a year, just under a year, I believe…and they were looking for somebody who knew the content really, really well and could help with the pitches that they were taking in for their book series that they wanted to do. And they brought me on as a story consultant and a writer.

The very initial connection with Orphan Black…obviously, you loved the series. Did you, like…for Helsinki, did you pitch that to somebody, was that…you just went in cold and said, “I’d like to write this?” or how did that work?

So, I knew Tatiana Maslany prior to her acting on Orphan Black, because, like you said, it’s a really small community in Toronto, Canada as a whole. And I also went to a film program up here for writers, directors, producers, and editors called the Canadian Film Centre, and a lot of the writers and the show’s two creators, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, actually also went to the same center. So, I knew them as alum, because the alum kind of gets around and you start to meet everybody, because small and everyone’s very interconnected. And I knew many of the writers in the room, like Aubrey Nealon, and I kind of reached out and started chatting with them. And the comic book series Helsinki was a pitch I believe that John and Graham, maybe it was John Fawcett, wanted to…they wanted a series based on a back story that they had for a bunch of European clones who had died when they were teenagers. But it took place far, like, long before the story started for the TV series, so they thought a comic would be a good way to explore that. And they were looking for a comic book writer for this series and IDW the publisher, who’s down in San Diego, the editor there was reaching out and they let me know. So, I had met this editor the year before at Comic-Con, so I kind of threw him a bunch of my material and hoped he would reach out to me. And then he reached out and I ended up getting the gig. And it was really good because I could, you know, I was in Toronto, I was a local writer that was close to the show. I could go into the writers room and ask what was going on so that I could write this back story, which ended up having many, many threads that came into the fourth season of the show. I believe it was the fourth season where we introduced a new clone that Tat played, but it actually got published first in the comic books. So, that’s how I kind of started working with the Orphan Black franchise.

Now is…the current one that you’re working on…what I’m unclear on is how many actual books have there been, as opposed to the comics. You’re working on one now…. were there some before that? I haven’t been clear on that.

Right, OK. So, with the books, we write them episodically. It’s kind of structured like a ten-episode season of TV. So, there are ten books, all written by different writers. We had a writing room where we brought a bunch of writers together and we wrote story, down in a room in New York, and then we all went away because we’re all scattered across North America, and we all kept doing sort of clone-club Skype calls to talk to each other about plot and breaking story beyond that. And we came up with ten books that we owned. So, I believe, at the time of this recording today, the last book has just come out.

And is that the one that you wrote?

I wrote Episode 6. Which was called…Episode 6 was…sorry. Now I’m like, it’s because I wrote it so long ago…hold on, I might need a couple of minutes here to find that…and I also, we also ended up reading a lot of the other books as well, which essentially…we gave notes on each other’s work and we, you know, we tried to kind of like track all the plotlines. So this is why I’m trying to remember what the name of my episode was.

We can just call it Episode 6, if we need to…

No, I believe I have it…sorry about that. Oh. So my episode was Episode 6, and that’s entitled “What a Living World Will Demand.”

So, without giving too much in the way of spoilers, can you sort of explain what happens over the course of these ten books, or at least give some idea of where this…does it follow right after the conclusion of the series? Is what happens?

No, it doesn’t. So it picks up about eight years after the end of the series. So, all of the clones that are still alive…and I won’t…I’ll mention a few, but I won’t give away it all, if you haven’t yet seen the TV show…but it picks up eight years after the end of the series. And we follow Cosima Niehaus and Delphine Cormier from the series. And you know, they’re living their life together. We have Kira Manning, which is Sarah Manning’s daughter, and she’s now in her late teens and we explore her life. And Charlotte, another younger clone from another generation of clones who’s also the same age as Kira. And we follow them as they are living out their lives, and the story begins when Cosima Niehaus, who’s seeking out new opportunities in life professionally, because she’s left the academic realm, or is trying madly to get out into genetics and work in a larger way in her field, she discovers that the clones’ identity, which they’ve kept secret all these years, may be in jeopardy because somebody potentially knows that they exist. After Dyad, the big corporation that controlled the clones had dissolved and disappeared and they had this sense of security, they’re now thrown back into turmoil of being exposed and potentially manipulated because of their genetic identity.

That sounds exciting.

Yes. And we have a new clone, too. The first episode starts with a brand-new clone who has a very exciting job, a very unique job, and she’s a very complex, interesting character. And she was really, really a great character to write for, because we got to push the clone identity into a job that involves a more global political walk of life.

I’m interested in the process. This podcast is all about the creative process, and this is a very different process with a writer’s room throwing ideas around and coming up with ideas jointly. So, you know, usually at this point I ask where, you know, more or less, it’s a cliché, but where do you get your ideas? It sounds like there were a bunch of you working on ideas all at the same time.

Yeah, we had a great room of writers, I think. I felt really privileged to work with them. Malka Older was our showrunner, essentially. It was her pitch that ended up becoming Orphan Black: The Next Chapter. And she has a background in…well, she has a doctorate in ethics, particularly within the realm of science and socially, so that was really great, to work with her, because she brought that entire aspect of Orphan Black. And that’s a big part of the TV series, as you know, the ethics around genetics and science and using human beings in experiments. So, she brought that to the table. I’ve always felt like I learned a lot from her, getting her insight on what she thought we could do with that angle of the story. We had Madeline Ashby, who is a novelist and a futurist, and she’s flown around the world to consult on science and the future of technology. And she always had, you know, frightening, frightening stories to bring to the table about where technology could go or kind of…her viewpoint was extremely interesting, so tons to learn there. We had to E.C. Myers, and Eugene is an incredibly funny person with an extremely grounded sense of humor, and he brought a lot of insight to certain characters. He writes in YA, and we had a kind of a teen component to our story with Kira and Charlotte. And then we had also Michelle Baker, who, as a writer, she was…she comes from kind of urban fantasy and she creates very emotionally grounded, complex, deep characters. And that is also another huge touchstone for the Orphan Black universe, are these layered characters, particularly the women that Tat played, you know? So that was huge. And then Lindsey Smith, our final writer, that was in our group, she comes, she’s a novelist as well, and she has a background in…I don’t know exactly what her job is, but I want to say she’s definitely our tech expert. I think she’s a hacker? She…you know, and we have a lot of technology that we touch on in terms of, you know, computer science, so she was kind of filling that angle for us. And we deal with a lot of kind of clandestine jobs and jobs working for intelligence agencies, so she…she knew something about that as well. So, there was no shortage of ideas. I think at one point I would say, you know, we had too many ideas.

I was going to say, it sounds like it could be difficult to pare them down to one storyline.

Yeah, exactly. We had so many options for certain storylines. And then eventually, you know, you just hacked through and weeded out. And what’s kind of…it’s a blessing and a curse, but when you’re writing not for the screen, but for prose and for books or whatnot, you have less limitations in terms of, you know, sure, we had a page count, like a word count we had to adhere to, but we didn’t have a budget or, you know, how many actors we have or how many people we get to have in a scene or how many clones we could have in a scene. So, we could kind of do anything we wanted. If we wanted to take the show to Paris, we could have. We could have done any number of things. So, it gets tricky sometimes to pare it down.

So, when you took your segment away to work on, what exactly did you have in front of you in the way of notes and what were you working from?

We had done kind of…we did…we broke out a kind of rough season outline that had the arc, when we were all in New York together, and we ended up having, basically, rough tentpoles per episode of what we knew we wanted to happen for this season. So, we didn’t have details and we didn’t have maybe all of our kind of logic and minute character motivations broken out or completely hammered out, rather, but we did know in a general way what all the big moments were and how we were gonna work them in. And we had kind of spitballed and riffed on ideas in the room. So, we came away with the flavor of certain scenes that we knew we wanted to have in the series and kind of moments that we really thought were valuable for the tone of the show or for, you know, entertainment value or for plot and thematic and dramatic statements and themes. So, when I sat down, I had kind of, I would say like five, six, seven big moments that I knew had to happen in my episode and I went to work and tried to string them together and create scenes to build off of that into an outline, and then we sent the outlines around and all read and had discussions and Skype calls where we all were on split screens talking to each other. And then I just kept refining the outline, and we went through an approval process with the, with Temple Street/Boat Rocker Media, that’s the company that initially produced Orphan Black here in Toronto, and a producer that had worked on the show, Kerry Appleyard, would give us notes and we’d go back and redraw our outlines and then move to draft.

It’s a very different process from someone simply writing their own novel.

Yes, it’s very collaborative. Sometimes a little chaotic, confusing.

I suppose it’s much more like writing…anytime you’re writing on a TV series or something where you have an arc for the season, but you have a bunch of different writers working on different episodes, it must be pretty much the same process.

Yeah, I would say it’s most similar to a TV writing room. That’s kind of what we had going on, except for we were all over the continent and sometimes in other time zones when certain people are to fly off to other countries for gigs. So, it was a little challenging. We weren’t all locked together in a room anywhere. We didn’t reconvene after that story summit that we had. But yeah, essentially, yeah, it’s a very collaborative process. I mean, coming from film making, I love working with other writers and filmmakers and I really enjoy working in a group that way. I think for certain projects…I’m writing a book right now of my own, a novel…there’s certain projects that I think for me I do well being alone writing. But in this case, Orphan Black is a very complex universe. The themes are very complex. The topics are sometimes hard to grasp. It’s…you have to generate a lot of content because they’ve already had five seasons of material that they’ve run through and multiple characters that Tatiana has played. So, working in a group like this for this kind of show or story series, really…I don’t know. It’s hard to do it alone.

Was there an overall editor that…or an individual who edited each book as it came along?

Yeah. We had two editors, Lydia Shamah and Marco Palmieri, who were with us for the duration of development and through to the end to copyedit, and they both kind of…they split the work up. Lydia was with us for the first half of the project and then Marco came in for the latter half. And they were amazing editors. They were always reading all the content that we were trying to create. They are helping us figure out if we had dropped threads or what we needed to kind of pick up and..’cause a series like Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, you know, it’s a thriller. There’s a lot of characters, there’s a lot going on. So it’s easy when you’re just focused on your individual episode to lose sight of the bigger picture or to miss a beat that’s integral to the plot. So, really it was invaluable to have other eyes looking at our project from a kind of broader scope.

Whenever you’re writing anything, what you’re…just the physical process? Do you sit in a home office? Do you go out to a coffee shop? How do you like to write?

I used to write in coffee shops a lot because I have a very moody husky and he likes to bug me all the time when I’m writing. And I just couldn’t get anything done because she didn’t like it when I was on my laptop. So I used to go out and I used to write with an author, a friend of mine, Christian Cameron. He’s known also as Miles Cameron. He writes a lot of historical fiction and fantasy. And I used to go write with him. We’d write in a kind of a bakery that had a second-floor area where there was no Wi-Fi and forced us to focus. And it was nice, because he’s written, I think…oh, God, he must have about forty books now that are out and he’s written multiple fantasy series. And he’s got a very…he’s got military training. He was in the military. So he treats…he’s very regimented, very disciplined, and he just hammers through pages. So, it was really good for me to write with him. It was inspiring. And, you know, it helped me to wrangle me when I was writing on contract alone. I would say for this book series, now, I’d write during the day at Ubisoft, in the office, it’s a very collaborative medium, too, a lot like film making that way, but maybe even more chaotic in some ways. And then I’d come home at night and I would either write at home or I’d force myself to go back out to a cafe, if writing…if I didn’t have a lot of gas in the tank and I knew I had to get something done.

Tatiana Maslany, photo by Gage Skidmore

Now, one of the interesting things about Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is that Tat has narrated the audiobooks of them. Have you heard yours, your segment, with her narration?

Yes, I have. I did listen to mine and it was kind of crazy to hear Tat read my book. It was just so strange because I’d met her, you know, about a decade, over a decade ago now, I think, or maybe just about a decade ago. And yeah, it was great. I was really impressed by her work yet again. She always impresses me and she has done a great job of embodying new characters and bringing back old clone characters and also playing her other, like, her co-stars on the show. So, she plays other people from the show that she had previously worked with.

I guess she’d have to, wouldn’t she?

She plays, you know, she plays, Felix, played by…her brother on the show, played by Jordan Gavaris. She plays Donnie and Alison, who were a married suburban couple. It’s kind of wild, but yeah, it was really great to hear it. And she did a fantastic job. It played…it’s read a little bit more like a radio play than just straight-ahead audiobooks. There’s a bit of…they have some sound effects, and I thought that, production-wise, they did a great job.

Now, what do you find is the biggest difference between writing screenplays and game material now and writing straight prose? What strikes you as the difference between the two or the three?

The three. Yeah. So, screenplays are very, very structure oriented. You have, usually…you don’t want to put too much fat in there. You need to keep moving the plot and the arc of every character with each scene. You don’t have a lot of time to be…you don’t have time to meander, but you also don’t really have much ability to get very introspective with your character. You can’t jump into their head, and you don’t want to do, you know, tons of voice-over where you get into their psychology. So that’s a huge difference with prose, where you can sometimes indulge in something or explore something in the character that you might only kind of get across on screen, but you can get into their psychology more and kind of the minutiae of who they are and why they do what they do from their perspective or from another perspective. You can switch perspectives to in storytelling when you’re writing in prose. And I would say with videogame writing, there are even more restrictions on that than on film making and comic books, because you have less time for your scenes, for these cinematic scenes, cut scenes that you have in games. So, you’re writing even more economically in a dramatic scene and you’re also constantly considering so many different variables in video games of, well, where has the player potentially come from or not come from in the game? You know, what have may they have seen or completed or not completed? You write exits and entrances a little bit differently, almost like a stage play, because a lot of the cut scenes that play in games have to merge back into gameplay, so you need to write exits for certain characters. So it’s got a theatrical aspect to it that way.

I would think…in games do you not sometimes have to write a scene in more than one way, depending on how the player might come to that spot?

Yes. I wrote on a project called Watch Dogs: Legion at Ubisoft, and it was kind of an amazing project to write on, I have to say, because one of the main features of the game is that you can play as anyone you see in London, England. It’s set in a post-Brexit London, and you can kind of walk around and recruit people to your kind of resistance group, it’s a hacker group, and you can become that person. And as writers, the writing team for that game, we had to write from many different voices. We’d write characters in scenes, but then we would have to go back and rewrite certain scenes because you could be any number of people in the world. So, there is a lot of that which you don’t get in film making, you know, traditionally you follow one character and that’s it, or a few characters and you see certain perspectives, but in this game, you could really be anybody. So, we ended up revising a lot of things based on that.

It actually sounds like a great writing exercise, writing a scene from everybody who’s in the scene.

Yeah, exactly. Because, you know, it would shift the intentions of the characters slightly, you know. You’d have one line from a character that might always being the scene, and depending on which player character ends up in that dramatic scene, the lines and the tone of the scene shifts, you know, depending on age and gender and culture and attitude. So, it was really an amazing writing exercise.

I think I’m going to steal that for a writing workshop sometime. I think it could make an interesting writing workshop.

Oh, you should. You should have a scene where you have to rewrite one character as different people and see how far you can push, you know, an archetypal scene.

I did a book, that was never published…years ago…I rewrote it twice. Still couldn’t make it work. But I changed the main viewpoint character. So, I sort of did that once. Well now, we’re getting close to the end of our time. We’ve got about ten minutes left. So I want to ask the big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories and why do we do it through writing?”

Wow. Yeah. The big philosophical question. For me, I think with writing…there’s probably a few answers to this question. One of the most…one of the predominant reasons that I write would be to connect with people. I really…you know, to be able to build a story and explore something that either puzzles or interests me or affects me, you know, that I’ve seen in the world or that has, you know, somehow come to me as a story idea…to build something like that and then have someone else read it, right after I write it, in a year, two years, years, maybe even when I’m dead…who knows who’s gonna read what a person writes? You know, someone could read what you’ve written a hundred years from now…that is just, you know, to me, that is just the reason I write, I think, because I’ve read so many people’s work. I’ve read work that had been written, you know, hundreds of years ago, and it still resonates with people, and I’ve learned from it, I’ve…it’s changed me as a person, you know, when you read something and it has an impact on you, I think. I think that’s one of the reasons I write. Just to connect with people.

Why do you…you have, clearly, from the beginning, been drawn a bit to the fantastical and the weird and the strange. So why do you think we choose to tell those kinds of stories? Like, Orphan Black is kind of set in our world, but it’s not, It’s not really, it’s a fantastical story. And so, what draws you to those kinds of stories?

Number one, I think I’m an escapist. I like a little bit of escapism. I definitely think that some of my fascination with Tolkien dealt with wanting to escape as a kid and go to another world and I used to act out those stories as well, I’d write these elaborate storylines, but I also think the reason we gravitate towards genres that kind of bend our world into…or characters into…you know, things that don’t exist in our real world…I think we really enjoy that because we can connect with it. And I think that when we can manipulate people or characters and environments, we can highlight things even more so that we see in the world or that we feel or things that we want to, you know, challenge. We can highlight that, you know, we can use genre as a form of criticism or, you know, a way of bringing things to light. I think that we…it’s like giant metaphor. And I think that that’s one of the reasons genre for me is so attractive, you know, because I can be entertained and intrigued by something that seems new and fresh, and at the same time I can relate it back to, you know, what I see politically in in our world or I can relate it back to a personal experience and a walk of life by experiencing something that’s seemingly so different and otherworldly.

Now, you’ve mentioned the game that you’re working on. You also mentioned a novel that you’re working on. Do you want to say anything more about it?

Yeah, sure. This one…this kind of touches back to, you know, when I was a kid, and…it’s a story called The Penny Discount, currently, and it’s a fantasy novel about two thirteen-year-old girls who learn about…they learn about debt and credit debt through the use of magic. Yeah. It focuses a lot on that and on, you know, seeking out happiness. And, yeah, it has a lot to do with consumerism as well. And having a very, very close friendship with somebody and having big dreams and goals and maybe not going about them in the best way.

And how far along are you in that?

I am…I have yet to write the end of it. I am around…I’m getting up there for a kid’s book, I’m just over sixty thousand words. But I’m about to go through and do a kind of a little bit of a structural rework of it. But yeah, it’s been really fun to write in prose because, you know, when you’re writing like that, you feel like you can kind of just, you can freewheel a little bit here and there and explore stuff that you don’t always get to explore in other formats of writing.

Do you have publication lined up? Do you have any idea when this will be published?

This one I’ve just kind of kept to myself. I haven’t really told many people about it until now. It’s been secret, just in case, you know, it’s not too hot, then I don’t have to tell anybody I’ve ever done it. But it’s just one of these projects that kind of just flows when you’re writing it. And I’m really excited about it. So, yeah, I’m hoping to get back on that and finish that now that Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is out. And, yeah, that’s kind of the next thing I’m working on, going back to something that touches back to my roots and has a lot of me in it.

And if people want to keep up with what you’re doing, do you have a website or online presence, or where can they find you?

You can find me on Twitter @HeliKennedy, or Instagram, I’m on there, too. But yeah, I’m on Twitter. So reach out if you like.

Yeah, well. Hopefully people will do that. So thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a fun conversation.

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

And good luck with the novel.

Thanks so much.

Bye for now.

Episode 42: Candas Jane Dorsey

An hour-plus interview with Candas Jane Dorsey, internationally known, award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, including Black Wine, A Paradigm of Earth, and the new short-story collection Ice & Other Stories.

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@CJDwriter

Candas Jane Dorsey

 Candas Jane Dorsey is the internationally known, award-winning author of novels Black Wine (originally Tor 1997, 1998, re-released Five Rivers 2013) and Paradigm of Earth (2001, 2002, Tor); upcoming mystery series The Adventures of Isabel, What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2020-2022 ECW); upcoming YA novel The Story of My Life, Ongoing, by C.J.Cobb; short story collections Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988), Dark Earth Dreams (1994), Vanilla and Other Stories (2000) and ICE & Other Stories (2018); four poetry books; several anthologies edited/co-edited, and numerous published stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays.

Candas was editor/publisher for fourteen years of the literary press The Books Collective, including River Books and Tesseract Books. She teaches writing to adults and youth, professional communications at MacEwan University, and speaks widely on SF and other topics. She was founding president of SF Canada, and has been president of the Writers Guild of Alberta.

She has received a variety of awards and honours for her books and short fiction. In 2005 she was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal for her artistic achievement and community work, and in 2017 the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts. She was inducted into the City of Edmonton Arts and Cultural Hall of Fame in 2019.

Other awards include the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame (2018), YWCA Woman of the Year Arts and Culture (1988), and an Edmonton Arts Achievement Award (1988). She is also a community activist, advocate, and leader who has won two human rights awards and served on many community boards and committees for working for neighbourhoods, heritage, social planning, and human rights advocacy.

Welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

We have known each other for…I always start these podcasts by trying to make a connection, but in our case, we’ve known each other for quite a long time at this point, haven’t we?

I believe so. I believe we could measure that in numbers of decades.

Yeah, it’s getting there, for sure. And. of course, I’ve also been plugging When Words Collide, which is where I asked you to be on the podcast this year, because it’s a great writing convention that I’ve found several of my guests on over the last couple of years…or at…and I do like to tell people about it because I think it is really always a fun weekend for me, anyway. And I hope for you.

Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where you’re recognized for doing the thing you think of as primary. You know, we do so many things to make a living, but they’re not all things that we want to be remembered for the annals of history, you might say. Whereas, when you go to When Words Collide, it’s about writers and being writers and it’s like your primary environment. You get to submerge yourself in talking to people about books. I think it’s marvelous.

And I should mention for anyone who is interested that whenwordscollide.org is the Web site if you want to check it out. Not “when worlds collide,” whenwordscollide.org.

Yeah.

So, we’re gonna talk about your collection of short stories, Ice & Other Stories, which came out last November, and that’s a little different ’cause we normally talk about novels on here, but that’s good because short fiction is, you know, it’s own thing, which I think maybe I should talk about more on The Worldshapers. But before we do that, I would like to take you back, back into the mists of time, which is becoming a cliche on here, because I say that to everyone, to find out how you became interested in writing in general, but also how you became interested in writing stories of the fantastic, and a little bit about where you grew up and all that sort of thing.

OK, well, I’m one of those rare people who was born and grew up in the place that I still live, which is Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And I’ve never really left for any period of time, although I’ve traveled a lot. I was the youngest in a family of three children, and it was a reading-and-doing-things family. My father had a day job, but he was…what he really was as a musician. My mother was a kind of self-taught historian who turned that into an entire career after I was in high school and was also very much a secret visual artist—you know, she never did much with it, but she loved it. And in her later years, she decided that she was just going to do it. So, it was kind of an interesting group of individuals. My brother is a professional musician and is also a visual artist. And my sister was a kind of a philosopher, really. But she had a day job editing for Hansard and she also did, you know, she sang in the choir, she made things with primitive Japanese woodworking tools just to see if she could, and that sort of thing. So…and, of course, we were all great readers.

So, one of the problems I had as a kid when I came along, I was nine years after my sister and eight years after my brother, they had taken up a number of the art forms, and I was acutely conscious of the competition factor. And so, I think without really…I mean, I already loved reading and I was reading and writing above my grade level, so it was fun to show off, to write things. But I really began to realize that I loved it, and it was also a field where I could just go to town without worrying about an older sibling competing. So I kind of dug into that in my school years, but by high school, I really was kind of committed to it and started to really take it quite seriously. And I have a sideline in visual art, which I did then and then kind of stopped doing for a number of years, and just in the last ten or twelve years, I’ve started doing visual art again and selling paintings. So, that’s more of what my students these days call a “side hustle,” and the writing is always the thing.

So, I’ve been a writer and an editor. I’ve also run a book-publishing company with a group of other people that included for a while Tesseract Books, the Canadian science fiction and fantasy press, which we bought from Beach Holme Publishing, and we later sold to Edge Publishing, and we ran that for about nine years. And I’ve also run an arts newspaper and I teach writing, to various continuing education…like the University of Alberta, and the local school board has something called Metro Continuing Education…and I also teach in communication studies at MacEwan University for the last few years.

And somewhere in there I also got an MFA. I thought it might be a good credential to have. And by then it was kind of interesting because I had more books published than about half of my professors, and of that, half of those minded and half of them didn’t. So, it was kind of a fun experience to dip my toe into academe and discover the politics thereof, but I enjoyed it for the most part. And that’s where I wrote for young adults for the first time, took a children’s and young adults’ writing course from Glen Huser, and realized that I actually had a voice in my head for that. So, that book, if I actually sign my contract and send it back and work out a few technical issues, that book should be coming out next year or the year after.

Well, we’ll certainly talk about that a little later on, too. When you were starting out writing as a young person, did you share your writing with…you know, you said you liked to show off a little bit…were you sharing your writing with classmates and that sort of thing? I always ask that because I think it’s important to get that audience feedback when you’re starting out and realize that you can tell stories that people might like. That’s certainly what I did and kind of what made me think, you know, maybe I really can do this.

.Well, mostly I shared them with the teachers. I had…I had only a very few classmates that I had good friendships with, and high school got a little better, but I was one of those kids who was alone by circumstance rather than by choice in school. I was sick a lot. I was away a lot. And when I was there, I was often ridiculed and called the teacher’s pet because I actually read the books and did the assignments and so on. But I did…it’s kind of interesting. I have been teaching this course for Metro Continuing Education called Introduction to Creative Writing, and a couple of years ago, they moved the classroom that they used, because they use school classrooms at night, right? They moved it to the place where I went to high school, and I realized when I went in there that that had been fifty years ago. This was quite a shock to my system because I don’t really tend to think of myself as old enough to have had, you know, a span of fifty years of sort of higher consciousness, you know, as opposed to, you know, vague memories from long ago. But indeed, I am.

And so, there I was in the school, which, although it had been renovated in terms of paint job and new doors and new lockers, visually is very much the same, and it’s the school where..well, OK, to start that sentence in a different place, I started school when I was four. I think my mother was sort of glad to get me out of the house because I was a very talkative, questioning kid, and probably quite tiring. But anyway…and she also recognized I could already read and was interested in stuff…and so she talked the school into taking me a little bit early because I was supposed to be five. So, when I got to high school, I was a little younger and a little..and a lot…less cool than the popular kids. But high school is a place that had things like the newspaper club and the debating club and the Reach for the Top team and places where my particular kind of weirdness was actually valued for a change. So that was quite nice. But also, I had a Grade 10 English teacher who was awesome, just awesome. She was herself an artist. I found later she was a talented violinist. She’d had her first recital when she was very young and it was, you know, a big sensation around town.

And I think this is in part because, sadly, I just last week attended her funeral service. She was 91 when she died. And…so she was 40 when she was teaching me, and she just had…she had a warmth and an interest in her students that meant that she actually recognized me as having potential or having something to do, and she showed an unfailing interest in my writing, and then she took a little bundle of my writing and she sent it off to Mel Hurtig, who at that point was running his bookstore in Edmonton. He later, of course, became a publisher and published a bunch of Canadian, amazing Canadian classics, like, so many of the works of Inuit writers in the 1970s. He published Mini Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat, and he published People from Our Side…and he published a number of books of the artists up there and their memoirs. He also published The Canadian Encyclopedia. But in those days, he still ran his bookstore. And if you’ve ever been to Audreys in Edmonton, he sold his bookstore to two women named Audrey, who worked for him, and that’s why Audreys, which is Edmonton’s only general independent bookstore at the moment, that’s why they have no apostrophe in their name, because it means the two Audreys. But that was later.

So, there I went…and she sent me downtown to talk to him in his bookstore. He had this big bookstore and then there was a little raised, like, three-steps-up section at the back where his office was. And there I went. Grade 10 self, so I’m like, fourteen, fifteen years old, and I’m shy and nervous. And this just wonderfully kind and intelligent man greets me and talks to me a little bit about writing and books, and then he sent me over to the university to a professor of children’s literature named Alison White, who welcomed me and gave me some books and read my poems and talked to me about them. And I…by then it was summer, and I got the excitement of going sort of all by myself on the bus, which was kind of a big deal for me because I didn’t go out much in that way, over to the university and into one of the historic buildings there where her office was and have this, you know, exciting moment of recognition.

And I have to say that it changed and possibly even saved my life and my sense of self to actually be seen at that point. And I don’t know about you, but those years of sort of thirteen to seventeen are not my favorite years in memory. They really aren’t. They were the time of maximum…well, not to be euphemistic, maximum misery. So, you know, she certainly changed my life and she may have saved it in a kind of metaphysical way because she really gave me to understand that at some point down the road, life would be different and interesting and I might have something to say to the world. So it was…I was thinking about all this week because, of course, it was a bit of a shock to realize that that was fifty years ago and that she had just died and I had met her since then and been able to express my appreciation, thank goodness. But then I went to this service and there was her daughter, who was her only child, and who looked very much like she looked when I knew her first. And so it was kind of an interesting conversation. And I think I was the only person there who was from her teaching life. And, I just, you know, I saw it in the paper. But so I was…I sort of brought all this up from memory and talked to them about her, her sister, and her daughter and her nephew were there, and they invited me to sit at their table. It was a Ukrainian funeral, so there was this absolutely delicious meal, lunch, sit-down lunch afterwards of the Alberta Ukrainian fare, which is, you know, cabbage rolls and meat and chicken and so on. And so it was this hearty and wonderful lunch. And then, just being able to tell her family something about what she was like for us, for her students. So, that was cool.

A lot of writers have somebody like that in their past, I think, that one person that maybe made them realize that maybe this was, you know, there was some value there and what they were doing and maybe they had some talent in that area.

Yes. And I’ve come to think…and I teach a lot of introductory writing courses, and I generally teach pretty much the same thing each time, but that’s because I think there are a few basics that people need to know and then they just need to get out there and write. But I sort of…iI think about what is the nature of a writer in general. And I think that writers are a peculiar combination of nervousness and ego. I was in theater when I was in school, I took drama classes, I went to…the local flagship theater is called The Citadel, I went to drama classes there…I crewed shows. I was gonna be in technical theater. When I realized I couldn’t act very well, I went into technical theater. And there were some opportunities that now I kick myself. I mean, I could have been a stage designer by now and had a completely different life, because Phil Silver, the stage designer at the time, who later went on to Stratford and other heights, invited me to be his model maker, which is a bit like saying you can apprentice with me. And I was young and kind of stupid and I decided I was going to, you know, go back to university and save the world. I don’t know what I decided. That was a long time ago, too. But I didn’t do it.

So, I was in theater and I began to realize that the talents that…I loved improv, but I was not good at preparing a role and losing myself in the role. And I realized that the thing that was wrong with that was the losing myself. And I had this conversation with a guy called Edward Atienza, who was a tenor…he came to Edmonton to do the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado when my partner was the…sidekick…you know, I can never remember their names…Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah.

Ko-Ko is the main character. He’s the Lord High Executioner. And there’s Poo-Bah and there’s Pish-Tush, I played Pish-Tush, that’s how I know.

Edward Atienza

Yeah. OK. Well, you guys could get together, have a little reunion, and, you know, put your arms over each other’s shoulders and sway back and forth and sing Mikado songs. But, anyway, so there was Edward Atienza, and we were at the sort of first-night party, and I happened to get seated next to him. And I don’t know how we started trading biographies, you know, that, you know, try to find common ground. But, for some reason, I made this mention of having been involved in theater, but realizing it wasn’t…performing was not…I wasn’t temperamentally suited to any other performing except improv. And he said. “That’s really interesting,” because when he was in university, he had wanted to be a writer. Like, in all his teenage years. And he’d gone…and he was British…so he’d gone to university to prepare for this and realized what he was there, that he couldn’t stand the kind of vulnerability that you have as a writer. He couldn’t put himself out there. Even in fiction, you have a kind of vulnerability when you write it. And that just didn’t suit him. And so he moved over into performing, because he could take his creative impulses and clothe them in inhabiting a role.

And so, there were these two people who had basically gone opposite directions, had kind of crisscrossed over in order to find the thing that suited their temperament. Because even when I was a kid, even when I was a very unhappy little kid, I was not…I was quite confident that I would grow up and I would have a life and it would be an interesting life and it would be full of writing. And I find that kind of interesting, that I never really doubted that part. I doubted my ability to write well, I had all the usual angst and worry that young writers have. But I also had some peculiar kind of confidence or ego that kind of saw me through that early part.

Well, I think a lot of the challenge of writing is, like you said, you have to have some sort of ego there that makes you keep doing it and doing it and doing it and thinking that, you know, somebody eventually is going to recognize what you’re doing.

Yeah, and that you’re writing a thing that’s important to be written. You’re not wasting your time and so on. Right? So, yeah, so it kind of interests me, you know, and I try to…I had some really encouraging writing teachers and I had some that basically believed that the way you went about it was extreme tough love and that you would just…and that they would just…well, there was in particular, he would discourage anyone, you know, “You’re wasting your time, don’t do this,”  kind of thing. And what I discovered is that the encouraging kind of teacher is not going to bring people into the field who or bad at it because the field will just cull them out. What they will do is bring people into the field who need encouragement—and the word courage is in that word encouragement—who need the courage of their own conviction to get into their career. So, the kind of tough-love writing teacher only is only good for the egoist or the stubborn people or the people whose kind of social fight-or-flight response is to fight back. But there are a lot of writers who are quiet and who don’t want to have a public fight, but they want to write. And so I think, when I’m teaching, I try to indicate to people that, you know, the world of writing and of readers and of publishing is going to narrow you down into the people who are going to get accepted, and so, you know, obviously for them a part of their career is to just get better at doing that thing until they get good enough to pass the bar. But I don’t sort of sit them down and say, “You should really open a 7-Eleven,” because you can’t decide for other people how they’re going to carry out that drive and whether they’re going to…whether they’re going to fix all other technical errors because they are so driven, like some writers that I have known, that I have taught, who you would have thought would be, would never get anywhere because they had so many technical errors, but they fixed them all because they loved, loved writing.

Well, and I’ve done quite a bit of writing teaching as well, and do try to be on the encouraging side myself. I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so it’s very much people coming in at all different levels of ability. And sometimes I see stuff and I think, “There’s just no way.” But I tell them what I think could make it better and try to be encouraging because, you know, you never know.

Oh, you know, I don’t hold back. You know, if I see somebody with a lot of technical errors, I will say to them, “You must fix these. Because otherwise you will have a miserable time being rejected.” But, you know, once they know they have to fix them, there’s no reason why they can’t. You know? I mean, I know it sounds kind of like, I don’t know what it sounds like, but basically I have seen people coming up into my writing classes for the past few years who have been taught by the whole-language or process-learning approach, and they really don’t know their own written language and they’re terribly disadvantaged, but they have the same desire to do the work and to tell the stories as the other writers have had. And so, I’ve often had to say, “Hey, it’s not your fault. It’s how you were taught. But you will have to learn this,” and many of them do, because they understand that it’s a tool, it’s their technology, the language is their technology, and they need to use it to do what they want to do.

And you know, I find that pretty, pretty…encouraging, I guess, because I knew all this stuff very early and I was also taught…I was schooled at a time where you were drilled in all the rules of grammar. So, when I sit down to write, I am extraordinarily lucky that my sentences come out as proper sentences, right? So, I can start kind of down the road. If I didn’t have that, though, I still would probably have the impulse to write, I would just have to do more work. So, you know, even people who come to the task with technical skills that need improving, I have seen them…I mean, it’s not just sort of a greeting card here, I have seen them improve and become published writers, and I’ve seen others who had great skills, but they didn’t have kind of the fire. They didn’t want to do the extra work to do a second draft. And their extremely promising stories didn’t even go as far as the other ones. So, this at this point, after having taught since 1983 different writing classes and started, and sent…many of my classes, I send them off to be writing groups…I’ve decided you can’t predict which horse is going to finish the race. You just can’t. So, you give everyone the same skills and encouragement and then tell them it’s a tough business. And so you have…

(dog noises)

Sorry. Just give me a second…okay, let’s try that sentence again. I tell them it’s a tough business and that they have to meet a quality standard, but…and that they’re going to have to learn a lot of that on their own…and I think it’s a much better way to prepare them for the writing world than to try and be mean to them.

You may hear my little dog in the background.

He won’t be the first animal noises in the background. John Scalzi had cats going on in the background and somebody else did, too. So it’s not uncommon. And Peter V. Brett had somebody doing construction work outside his window, so…so, you studied English and drama in university and also social work. Were you…when did you start writing for publication, or attempting to be published? When did you break in?

W. O. Mitchell

I started writing seriously in high school and in the first couple of years of university, and my mother actually talked me into staying at university after the first year rather than going walkabout, as so many students did in the ’70s, because W. O. Mitchell was coming to teach writing at the university. And so, I did stay in my second year and took classes from Doug Barbour, who you know through his work in the science fiction field, and that’s who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany…in a big way. I mean, my father had been a big science fiction reader and I think I’d read Le Guin before, but some of the others I hadn’t…Alfred Bester, Joanna Russ, all these amazing writers…he had done his thesis on. And this is 1971, so, you know, people listening to your podcast will realize how long ago, how ancient I am. I’m not that old, but I feel it sometimes.

In any case, so I went back. I studied with Mitchell, who was a wonderful teacher. He was nurturing but demanding in a really wonderful way. And he never forgot anything or anyone. So, I would meet him years later and he would say, “Kid, you didn’t quit. You didn’t quit.” And that was his big thing. “Never quit. Just keep writing. Keep doing it.” And I remember one time I asked for a letter of reference for a grant I was applying for and I remember him saying, “I don’t know, my letter might be the kiss of death, kid, because, you know, I’m just not, you know, they don’t…I don’t think they’d like me that much.” And I’m saying, “I don’t know, you know. Big name.” In any case, I think I got the grant. So I think he wasn’t the kiss of death, but he was a lovely guy, and so…

Doug Barbour was editing White Pelican in those days and he’d gotten Samuel Delaney, for instance, to write for White Pelican. I think I still have that somewhere, that issue. And he and some other people got together and started NeWest Press. George Melnyk had started the NeWest Review and the NeWest Institute, which were to study Western Canadian culture. And I went to the first NeWest Forum on the Arts. It was out at Rudy Wiebe’s Strawberry Creek Lodge when the lodge wasn’t…it was just barely completed, it didn’t have carpets, or, you know, all the amenities, but there was. And we looked at, you know, questions…I mean, this was is in the 1970s and we’re talking about indigeneity. And somebody had made a film about spring burning for ecological reasons in First Nations before settlement and just all sorts of very cool stuff.

So, they decided to start a press. So they got a little board together and they started NeWest Press, which is of course, still in existence. And the very first book they did was called Getting HereGetting There?…no, Getting Here. And it was a book of Edmonton writers, all of whom were women, as I recall. It’s way up too high on the shelf to reach to verify this for sure. But I know that…yeah. I’m pretty sure it was all women writers and that was part of the point. And Doug edited or co-edited it. And that was…I had had some other things published in things like the university newspaper, and so on, but that was sort of the first time a story was anthologized. And it was a science fiction story of sorts, a kind of slipstream science fiction story, which was called, “You’ll Remember Mercury.” Which was a line from someone’s poem, who had written a kind of very creepy, almost horror-like poem, where the astronauts come to Mercury and they get changed and transformed in ways that they perhaps didn’t intend, and the last line was, “Oh, yes, you’ll remember Mercury.” So I’d written this story, which was, quite, I guess, a little surreal, but it took all the science-fiction tropes and it had them in there. You know, the faster-than-light travel, the spaceship captain, the et cetera, et cetera. And eventually…what it was was, in essence, was a space ship full of sort of outcasts, including First Nations people and so on, who were making a gesture against what we today call colonialism, I guess. And who have the spaceship and who ceremonially dive into the heart of the sun. And, you know, I mean, I was twenty, right? And so that was my first kind of breakout.

And I had a lot of stories published in literary magazines. All of them were science fiction and fantasy, really. Or slipstream or kind of surrealism or whatever they were. There wasn’t much in the way of realism, but I just thought of myself as a writer, you know, not particularly as a genre writer. I didn’t have any trouble with those markets, either. Like, you know, there’s a certain kind of town and gown kind of thing, of, you know, the literary world looks down on us, but I have been…I had no hesitation in submitting to those markets, and getting published, places like A Room of One’s Own and Prairie Fire and various magazines that no longer exist, Blue Buffalo, and so on.

And I also had no hesitation in applying for literary grants. I just thought, “Well, I’m a writer. That’s what they’re here for.” And I would apply and by and large, I would get them. I think, you know, the odds of getting a literary grant is somewhere between one and six and one in ten and probably more by now. But I figured that was pretty good odds for spending an afternoon on an application. And so, I would say that I probably got over half of those that I applied for, and was fairly philosophical about the ones I didn’t. I definitely urge, you know, if listeners are Canadian writers, almost all the provinces and the Canada Council have these grant programs and many cities do, as well. I live in Edmonton, and the Edmonton Arts Council has grant programs, and I would really urge people to apply and not be weird and reverse-snobby about how those are for literary writers and they will discriminate. They’re all decided by juries. The juries differ from time to time. So one jury may love your work. The other jury may put you a little bit below the red line. You have to think of it as buying a lottery ticket, in essence. You apply, and then you forget about it. And if a nice letter comes in the mail down the road, yay, you won the lottery. If it doesn’t, then, OK, you hadn’t counted on it anyway.

And, you know, I don’t think artists have a right to…I mean, I think we’re very lucky to have a grant system, but I have to recognize that historically, the state, as it were, and private patrons who had a lot of money were the reasons why the arts even got made. You think about the Renaissance and all those huge paintings of Saint Sebastian taking on the arrows that are now in the Louvre, they were all in private castles and artists went from castle to castle, making their daily bread by painting or they wrote a long poem and they dedicated it to the guy who was going to pay for it, right? And I don’t think…I think government is the best patronage system there is, because it’s objective. So, I really strongly feel that developing writers should look at all the options, and they shouldn’t think of themselves as being…especially developing speculative writers or developing genre writers, they shouldn’t think of themselves as being the little match girl outside the outside the house while the party goes on inside. We’re all part of the same thing.

Well, let’s move on to your current collection of short stories. Your first book was a collection of short stories, Machine Sex and Other Stories, and now you have Ice & Other Stories, which also starts with “Machine Sex.” So…I know you can’t really synopsize a collection of short stories, but tell us about the book.

Well, the book started as all the stories that had been in something, but not in a book. So there were thirteen or 14 stories. And every couple of years I’d get a story published. I’m a very slow writer. And sometimes that was because of life and reasons and sometimes it’s just because it takes me a while to develop a story. So I had these stories and I went through a period where my mother was aging and she was in a nursing home and I had some health issues, and it wasn’t the best time for getting things out into the world. But I had this collection. So, every now and then I would think about, “Where should I send it?” And it’s hard to get short-story collections published. It’s not easy to sell them, so only certain publishers want to do them.

So, I did…Ursula Plug did a book of short stories with PS Publishing in England, Pete and Mickey Crowther run it, and they do these beautiful hardcovers and they do a limited, a signed, limited edition, and so on. And she asked me to write the forward for it. So then I was in touch with these people and they seemed…and then I went to the London WorldCon and there were all their books, and they were just beautiful. They were beautiful. There wasn’t a small-literary-press-deathwish cover among them. They were all just beautiful and beautifully produced and a lot of hardcovers. And they were really sincere people. And I still can’t figure out their business model, because they do these beautiful books in small editions. They bind them beautifully. The signed editions are still well within a collector’s or regular collector’s budget. And they ship their author’s copies to me without charging for shipping, so I’m kind of amazed at their business model. But…so I got in touch with them and I sent them a manuscript, and…Nick Gevers is the short-fiction editor that works with them, and he lives in South Africa. And nothing really happened to this book for a while. And so finally, when I was in a little better state, I sort of sent a reminder saying, “Oh, yeah, I sent you guys a book,” and he sent me back a message and, interestingly, my mother had just died, which is why…and I was sort of getting back into having more time in my life. And so, he sent back a letter, and his mother had also been in care and dying at a similar elderly age, in their nineties. And so he said, “I haven’t read your manuscript yet, but I will,” and within a week I had a publication offer.

So, that started out one of the new years very well. And then we worked on what stories from previous books might be known to people that we should put into a retrospective, because this is 30 years of stories. They wanted a new story, and that took me a while, I must say. But so, then what would be kind of the first one? So we decided to put “Machine Sex”—”(Learning About) Machine Sex” is its real name—put that into it as the first story, because that’s the story of mine that has been most anthologized. And we’ve put in “Sleeping in a Box,” which won what was then the Casper Award and is now the Aurora Award, and there were a couple of others that I felt kind of still had…still should be seen there, and we ended up with, I think it’s twenty-one stories now, if I’m not mistaken. For a while, it was seventeen, and then it increased again.

And, basically, they cover thirty years, and so when I was writing the notes for it, I started writing the notes with a little bit of an eye toward the history. So, if you read the notes, you get a little bit of the secret history of Canadian SF. I talk in there about the SF Canada workshop in 1986 in Peterborough. And Michael Skeet was there. I was there, John Park…trying to remember if Karl Schroeder…anyway, I have all the names in the book. And there were eight people there and their various spouses. Ursula Pflug was there, Wendy Pearson was there, who’s now mainly an academic, but she was writing fiction in those days. She’s at Western, University of Western Ontario, I think it is. And her partner, Susan Knabe, who is also an academic in the field now. Ursula was there with her baby and her husband, who’s a filmmaker, and Michael was there, and Lorna Toolis, of course, the librarian at the Merrill Collection for all those years was there when she could be, she had to work. And Judy Merrill ran it.

So, that was then. And things have changed considerably over the time, and so each…we decided to arrange the stories in chronological order by publication and just talk, I would talk about what was going on at the time in the notes. So, it’s been actually, I think, an interesting exercise. Like, if people really want to start thinking about how the network fit together, who was helping whom, who was talking to whom, in the field, they will find some good information in the back pages there. And also, they’ll find all these, thirty years of short fiction. And the last story is actually a brand-new story. Probably, it has some…I mean, I know that some of my stories were more intense than others, and there’s some that I particularly love.

The one that I wrote for Ursula Plug’s anthology, and Colleen Anderson’s anthology, Playground of Lost Toys, is one that I’m particularly proud of. It’s really an example of me as a slow writer, though, because I started writing that story when Nalo Hopkinson put out a call for her anthology called Mojo Conjure Stories, which were stories about, in essence, everyday magic, and people doing folkloric magic. And it always bugs me that writers in the fantasy field will swipe the folklore of other people and turn it into their plot devices and they won’t look necessarily to their own heritage, because, you know, Wendigo is cool, so I’m gonna write a story about Wendigo, kind of thing. And some of those stories you need to be given. And if you’re given them, if you do the work, if you go to the people who own them and you ask, then that’s a different matter. But just to say, oh, I think it’s really interesting that, you know, Voudon says this or, you know, Candomblé is based on this and I’ll just use it in my story. You have…you’re walking a fine line between colonialism or, you know, imperialism of some kind, and true homage.

And so, I just thought I would look at what’s the kind of magic that my people would do. You know, I’m a third- or fourth-generation settler on the prairies from a sort of Scots-English background, almost completely that. I have a few random…I have a probably a random Mennonite several, a couple of hundred years ago, and so on. But it’s mostly Scots and English. So, I’m thinking, “What’s the heritage I have?” And so I started thinking about my relatives and the kinds of things that prairie people do, like make flapper pie and eat Kraft dinners and put together jigsaw puzzles and wear L’eggs pantyhose and work at the dollar store, and so on. And I crafted those into a story about, what would the everyday magic be for those people? So, it’s around putting together jigsaw puzzles makes magic. And it ended up being a lovely story, but it was also, like, many years after Mojo Conjure Stories was gone and published and so on. And it just never made it, So, when Playground of Lost Toys came along. I figured, “Jigsaw puzzles equal toys. Hey!” And I finished the last little bits of it and sent it in, and I’m very pleased with it. It’s the kind of story that I can only read it and it makes me sniff with a little bit of emotion, and so, I like that.

 Well, a lot about what I talk about on the podcast is, you know, the process of creating stories. And one of the great things about the story notes at the end of the book is that you do tell where these stories came from. But I don’t know that I see a particular theme as to how ideas come to you. It looks, like many of us, all sorts of things can spark a story idea in you. Is that fair to say?

Yes. And stories sort of start at different points, too. Like, I have had stories, and one of my novels, that started from a dream I had. And the novel became a novel because it took that long to make the elements of the dream into a story that made sense in anything other than an emotional arc, right? So…one of the things you need to know about me is I started writing short and started writing longer and longer pieces. So, it’s like that Eastern European proverb about, “How do you lift an ox? You start the day it’s born and you lift it every day.”

So, I wasn’t a natural novel writer. And, in general, my process is to start with a thing…and maybe you could think of it as, I don’t know if you save wrapping paper, but sometimes in my family we did, and there’d be this big tangle of ribbon and you’d pull the end of the ribbon and you’d just keep pulling it out and untangling it from all the stuff that isn’t that piece of ribbon. And so, I would assemble little pieces and move them around and it’s only later in my career have I written this…and I did it on purpose to see if I could…written a book where I started with, sort of the beginning, the first scene, and went in order to the end. And that’s the first mystery… I’ve just sold this series of three mysteries to ECW Press. Two of them are written, and I’m supposed to be writing the third one, probably right this minute, when you think about it.

But the first one came from, sort of an assignment I gave myself to just start at the beginning and write to the end. And I probably also did that when I was working with Nora Abercrombie on the three-day novel that we won. But I had, at least I had someone there to help me. Yeah, that was Hardwired Angel. And I think I’ve actually empowered certain of my students by saying, you know, you don’t have to write an order and you don’t have to write fast. It’s true that the industry demands a book a year from some kinds of writers and you can get into that rhythm once, you know, once you have the experience, but everybody is their own kind of writer, and you just have to learn what kind you are. Which is not like…I say to them, it’s not an excuse to be lazy, it’s not an excuse to say, “Well, I’m not going to do that because it’s too much work and I’m not that kind of writer anyway,” you know? No,  that’s not what I’m saying. But if you’re like me and you hate to know the ending…like, I truly find that if I have an entire outline planned out before I start, my impetus to write goes down to ten percent of what it was, if that, because I just, I write to find out what happens.

And other people love the outlining, and they put up their little index cards and stuff, and then they write for a while, and of course then the characters take over and create chaos within the story. And so, you know, there’s a moment when I have to get organized, but it’s usually when I’ve got quite a bit of stuff written and I have to think about what comes next in a more organized way. But quite often my instinct for story will drive me down a certain road when I’m not even sure I should be including that in the book, and it’ll turn out to be the right thing.

What is your actual…like, do you write in a keyboard, Do you write longhand? How do you like to work?

Well, that depends on what I’m writing. I pretty much always write poems longhand. And I do have a notebook beside my bed that I will occasionally write a scene down in. But, over the years…I was an early adopter of computers. I was actually an early adopter of typewriters, because my godfather gave me his 1922 Underwood when he got a modern typewriter in the 1960s, and I learned to type quite early. And I understood that if I typed it right, I would never have to type it again, and that was kind of powerful. When computers came out, I was freelance writing and I pretended that it was all about my business, and that it was a business decision. But what it really was, was, “Oh, my gosh, I get to do this where if I do it right, I will never have to retype another manuscript, and I can do this cutting and pasting stuff and I can do this alteration stuff,” it was tremendously exciting. And so, my first computer was this twenty-six-pound KayPro, which was considered portable in those days, made by an oscilloscope company…

I remember those!

Yeah. Ten-inch screen, and the first one had 63K of memory, and then you put a floppy disk in it to save your files, and the floppy disks were 5 1/4 inch. And then, they got a hard drive. It was ten whole megabytes. I thought I would never need another storage device in my life. It was so exciting. Anyway, so I was an early adopter. So, I got trained pretty early to type stuff. So, for the prose, I generally tend to type, but if something strikes me, if I have a good idea while I’m just about to go to sleep, I will grab the notebook and write it and then transcribe it later. But I know people who still write, like, their first draft in fountain pen, and…in one of the courses I teach, I have to talk about this, but, there is actually science to say that writing on a keyboard, if you’re taking notes, gives you less retention than writing.

Yeah, I saw that.

But I don’t know what that means if you’re generating it. I do know that if I were a better typist, there are all sorts of cool techniques that people that I know have done to make their first drafts were better. And one of them is a woman I knew who turned off her monitor for the first draft. But she was a good enough typist that what was there made sense when she turned them back on. Whereas I’m a terrible typist and I’m always correcting. And I look at, you know, I look at the screen and the keyboard all the time, I never learned any of the typing techniques. The attitude to typing that they had then was that it led to a stenographic career, so girls didn’t take typing. And I was very careful not to cross that line, but I kind of regretted it, because I wanted to write. But my sister taught me, who had taken typing, taught me to type on my Underwood when I was just a little kid. But I had such weak…like, I had tiny hands. And you have to lift the carriage return, or the capital key, the Shift key, was a literal shift, and you had to push it down, and it was very heavy. So as a result, I never learned to type with the right fingers.

But it doesn’t really matter. I think that the computer has been so helpful for so many because it’s a lot like writing by hand. You can write things that aren’t in order. You can go back and forth. You can cut and paste. You can add things. You can move lots of texts. You can copy things. You can keep…I mean, people who write with Scrivener can keep files on all their characters and all their settings and all their research in the same place. I mean, it’s just…it’s quite marvelous. And I think it actually helps the creative process have that kind of freedom from linearity.

What does your revision process look like? Is it all kind of a unit, where you just work away at it and it takes shape and then it’s done? Or do you ever go back and start at the beginning and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?

I am not a complete-rewrite person. I hate to talk about this because I don’t think it’s common. But the thing that I write down, by the time I write it down, is very close to the end thing. So my revision consists of fiddling around a little bit. Like, I hardly ever…I have hardly ever in my whole career taken a scene and just axed it and written a whole new scene. But I might put something aside. That doesn’t seem to fit. More often than not…like, I have very little of that had-to-try-this detritus lying around in my hard drive. It’s…to talk about my own process, I actually want to talk about my partner, Timothy Anderson’s, process, because he can be quite infuriating to sit across the room from while he’s writing and I’m writing, because he has everything in his head and he types it out. Like, he doesn’t…and it’s not conscious, he’s not walking around saying, “Oh, this character needs to do this,” but somehow there’s this story build-up that goes on in his head that’s way more conscious than it is in mine. And when he has some time, he sits down from across…and he can type fast, so he can write four to twelve thousand words in a day, if that’s all he’s doing, because he just types. It’s absolutely infuriating. It’s just so infuriating. Because I go type, type, type. Silence, silence, silence. Type, type. Silence. Type a bit. Silence. But when I put the thing on paper, it’s as if part of my mind is doing the same as his. It’s putting the story together, but it’s not doing it in my conscious sight.

So, when I type, what I’ve had to learn is to just trust, to type what’s there, what’s coming out, and see where it fits later. And especially with novels. I remember…your listeners might or might not know that the novel I’m best known for is called Black Wine, and it’s a rather complicated fantasy novel in which a number of braided stories turn out to all be related in the end. And when I first started writing it, it was…I thought it was gonna be a longish short story that was sort of a quest: young woman goes off looking for her mother who went away when she was a child, all in a fantasy landscape. And it was Marie Jakober, when I was telling her about it, who said, “Oh, Candas, this sounds like a novel.” And I was thinking, “Oh, no, oh, please, no.” But yeah, it was a novel. So I started typing.

And one day, I had gone to my friend’s, David Greer’s, house on Pender Island for a writing retreat, he had a lovely little cabin there, and I’m typing on my KayPro, and all of a sudden, the sentence I type, like, the first sentence I typed that day is, “There is a madwoman in a cage in the courtyard.” Now, this just came out of nowhere, nowhere, and luckily. I was smart enough not to say to myself, “Oh, this has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Don’t type any further.” And so, I just kept typing, and suddenly there was this young woman with amnesia who was sort of like a waif figure, and she was bringing this woman food, and they were talking in this language that the waif hadn’t realized she knew until she heard the woman speaking it…because amnesia, right? And I’m thinking, “What is this?” But something in me said, “This is part of your story.” And that ended up being the first scene in the book.

Once I had written all these pieces of book, I then arranged them in a bunch of orders, and some of the orders worked and some of the orders didn’t, and that ended up the first scene. And how I got smart enough to just keep typing, I have no idea. But I’ve always been really grateful for it, because many years later that novel emerged and that was the beginning of it. And then we discover later how it all fits with quest-girl and her mother and all the other people in the book, and it all kind of fits together, but you don’t really find out till about page 100, and even then, speaking of the revision process, David Hartwell bought that novel for Tor Books. That was funny, too, because he was buying a story of mine and one of the forwards to the Tesseracts Anthologies for his book Northern Stars, which was a Canadian science fiction anthology he co-edited with Glenn Grant and…I think it was Northern Stars, which was the first one…anyway…when my voice gets fades away, there’s because I’m looking up at my shelf of books to see if I can see the spine of it…but in any case, so he has me on the phone and I said, “Oh, David, you know, I’ve had this novel sitting on my desk for like a year now and I don’t know who to send it to. Could you give me some some some hints, some suggestions about who you think might want it?” And there’s this silence at the other end of the phone. And then this exasperated voice says, “Well, send it to me.” And I thought, “Oh, yeah, right, you’re the, you know, one of the most influential editors at the most influential publishing house, but I never thought of that.” And, indeed, he bought it. And what he…the only real change he made was, he said, “People have to wait till about page 150 or 175 to find out what’s going on for sure. They’re not going to wait that long. You have to move one of these scenes up a little earlier in the book.” So I moved it up to about page 100 and then he said, “That’s good.” And so, really his editing consisted of, “Move these things around a little.”

He was more active with the second book, because he would say things like, “These scenes are too long, you’ve got to fix them.” And I then figured out why and fixed them. But the first book, there was almost, almost nothing was changed. It was just moved a bit. And on the level of the sentences, some sentences were sanded until they had smoother edges. Including that very first sentence.

We’ve done an hour here, so I want to wrap things up. But I have to wrap it up with the big philosophical question that I ask everyone. And you spend a lot of time thinking about writing and you teach writing. And so the big question is simply, why? Why do you write and why do you think any of us write. And, specifically, why do we write stories of the fantastic? Why do we tell stories?

Well, when I’m being flippant, I say I write because there’s only two things I do well, and the other one is illegal to sell. But, no, I think…well, I know that it’s a human imperative to tell stories and to make sense of our environment through storytelling and through arranging things into a story. There’s even research…this woman whose name I forget at the moment, who pioneered a lot of research into nursing practice using narrative inquiry, which in itself is storytelling, right? It’s “ask the nurses to tell the stories of their practice.” And she actually did a study where she particularly interviewed bad nurses and asked them the same thing she asked the nurses in her general studies. And the main finding she had was that bad nurses could not make narrative out of their experience. They could not tell the story of their nursing practice.

And this, of course, makes me think of, in my social-work years and child-care work years, makes me think of the dysfunctional families, who would have secrets and lies but they don’t have stories that they pass on. They don’t have, they don’t know when the kids were born or when they moved here from Ontario or when so-and-so started school or whether they won an award or whatever. Whereas, certainly in my family, those memories were dearly, dearly kept and re-told as story. So, I think all humans try to make sense of their situation. And you think about someone who was raised in a dysfunctional family and they go to therapy. What’s the first thing they tell them to do? They tell him to tell his story. They tell them to, the first thing they do is to tell them to tell the story of their own lives. So they try and put together a coherent narrative out of their memories and what happened to them and their lives. That’s a kind of storytelling, too, right? It’s a kind of making order out of the universe. And I think those of us who…well, I don’t know if I can generalize, but certainly, when I look at the body of my work, it’s all about justice and injustice. It’s about hope and transformation because of things…

Particularly, when I was twenty years old, I got a job as a child-care worker for four years with teenage girls. And at that point, I was still complaining about my family of origin and how mean they were or whatever. Well, no, they weren’t. They were brilliant. I mean, there may have been some dysfunction in our family, as there is in every family. But I saw things that were horrifying and tragic and just left me with enough anger to basically fuel all the stories for life, and to some degree, I’m still telling those stories. And I thought about John Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction and how he talks about moral fiction is a fiction that kind of seeks justice. And fantasy novels are considered one of the kinds. The quest novel or the good-versus-evil novel, mystery novels, and romance. So he talks very specifically about the genres, and the reason that they’re so popular is because they restore order in the universe and in that way they are not religiously moral, but they are moral in the sense of a universal order, an ethical way of living, whatever.

So, I think we tell stories to create order and restore order and give people hope that there are solutions and answers and that there are people like them and that there are things they can do in the world. They don’t have to be inert. They can be agents of their own change and other people’s change. And I think, at the base level, that’s why I tell stories. The challenge is not to tell lectures, because I could give, as I am doing now, a little rant on why that’s important, or I could tell a story. But if I try to tell a story and all it is is a rant, it’s not a successful story. So, you have to put real people in a situation where their lives and love and emotional well-being and physical well-being depend on the resolution of these issues, and that then becomes an allegory for other people who read it to say, “I can submerge myself in this and I can see parallels to my own life and I can learn new things.

I do urge people…the last thing I’ll say is, I urge people to have a look, in our field, to have a look at John Clute and his fellow editors..it was John Klute and John Grant for one, and John Clute and Peter Nichols for another…the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. And there is a definition of fantasy in there that has something that I say to all my writing classes. It talks about the progression of a story from an initial wrongness through a state of thinning, where the world or the person’s reality is kind of thinned and hollowed out. And then comes a moment…and this is a beautiful sentence that I love, and I might as well finish with this, “A moment where the protagonist gazes upon the shriveled heart of the thinned world and knows what to do.” And that revelation is followed by a metamorphosis or a set of actions that lead to what Klute calls the eucatastrophe, like, the good, the resolution of the story, basically. And that leads to a return, a healing, a return of just governance, all the things that we recognize in fantasy.

But in my mind, you can put any type of fiction on that loom and look at that journey, and I often say to my students that modern literary fiction, especially what is sometimes called the MFA short story, is trapped in thinning every bit as much as a horror story is, right? So, literary fiction is still on it, too, and it fits in with his taxonomy. So if people want to know more about that, they just should look at the encyclopedia. It’s online. They can just look for the definition of fantasy and read the whole thing.

But I think that’s why people tell stories. Certainly why I do. And for a while, I was thinking it was also the only thing I knew really how to do and how to earn money doing. And that was when I started doing the visual art, because it was wordless and I could paint things and just feel the sense of creating for the sake of creating. And that created for me…that gave me a return to the way I had felt when I was first writing, and then I was able to kind of renew my own writing. So that’s that’s where I’m at now. And I’m actually quite happily writing away on this new book and I have another book waiting and another editor. So, if things work out, I’ll have this little cluster of about five books coming. Well, counting Ice, that’ll be six, coming out within a few years after a very long period of not publishing much.

And that was actually my next question. You mentioned the young adult book as one thing that was potentially coming up. And what are the other things that you’re working on right now?

Well, there’s a series of three mystery novels that are kind of nameless, slightly hard-bitten detective. But what she is, is a bisexual, downsized social worker with a cat who’s called Bunnywit, that he’s only called Bunnywit because she used to call him Fuckwit, but then when her cousin, the born-again Christian, came to visit, she was insulted by the cat having an obscenity in its name, so she had to learn to call it Bunnywit. And she’s been unemployed for a year, and things are getting to…she’s gotten down to her last box of fish sticks when someone offers her a job that’s related to a crime has been committed, and she sort of becomes an unwilling, unwillingly involved in the crime. And it goes on from there. So. the first one is called The Adventures of Isabel, and all the chapter headings were taken from the Ogden Nash poem. The second one is called What’s The Matter With Mary Jane? and all the headings are taken from the AA Milne poem. And the third one is called, that I’m working on right now, not sure if it’s called, The Man Who Wasn’t There, or He Wasn’t There Again Today. But it’s that little poem about, “As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Oh, how I wish he’d go away.” And so, they’re a bit of a series. Things happen as do happen in mystery series. And they’re also a little bit stylistically different with each one, which is part of the fun.

And then, so there’s the YA, which is called The Story of My Life Ongoing, and it’s narrated, sort of…it’s epistolary, and it has an intersex teen who is going through some stuff. But it’s not about being intersex, it’s about the stuff, and another teen that they meet that’s also going through stuff. So, we’ll see how that goes. And I wrote it quite a long time ago, so my struggle is I have to update it for the modern, much more aware era, thirteen years later. So there’s the three mystery novels, there’s that, then there’s the great looming serious novel that I worked on for years, which is now sitting with an editor who, as usual, is taking some time. I probably should send him a message saying, “Er, um, excuse me?”

I should mention, too, that Wayne Arthurson, the Edmonton nystery writer, decided that he’d like to try being an agent, and he took on my mystery novels and he was the one that placed it. So it was his first deal as an agent and my first deal with an agent. So it was a tremendously exciting moment. And I also joke that I never thought I would actually get to say the words “three-book deal” about my own books, because I’m not usually that kind of a writer. I’m usually a slow one-at-a-time writer. But this was a bit different, and then…I never mention the advances because I read all these stories in the American media, but about six-figure advances. And I say, “Well, I got a six-figure advance, but it had a decimal point in it.”

Yeah, I’ve gotten those.

And I’m actually happy with that because, frankly, you want to earn your advance out. You don’t want to be paid a huge amount of money. And then what if the book doesn’t sell enough to earn out? Then you have a bad reputation in the industry, whether it’s fair or not. And I don’t think it’s fair. So I’d rather have a small advance and then a success.

For readers who want to keep up with what you’re doing, can they find you online and where can they find you?

Oh, that’s something that’s a work in progress because I’ve actually…I had a Web site and I was just about to populate it when WordPress updated and broke it and I never got back to it. So my project for the winter, in order to avoid writing, is I thought I would try to get my website back in order and start a bit of a blog and I don’t know if what I will do is blog about things of interest, little rants, or whether I would make it specific to the process of writing and try and accumulate enough of that material for a book or what? And we’ll see. So you can find me in a search, but it’s not going to give you an up-to-date Web site. It’s going to give you a site that the Writers Union put up years ago and a Wikipedia entry that’s out of date and a little bit wrong, not a lot wrong, but just a teeny bit. They don’t allow you to edit your own.

Yeah.

And so I’m sort of there. I’m visible. But you can find out how to order my book, though, because it, most of the orders that PS Publishing does are mail orders. And so, just look up PS Publishing and Ice & Other Stories. And it is really a pretty book. So you will like…I say this to all your listeners…you will like it. I know you will.

Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Candace. It’s been a great chat.

OK. Well, thank you for letting me go on and on. I really enjoyed it. And I’m looking forward to hearing it and the others that you’re talking about, because you told me you have some great people coming up, and so, it’s always good to follow.

Well, thank you and bye for now.

Bye, Ed. Thanks a lot.

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.

Website
maryrobinettekowal.com

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@MaryRobinette

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@MaryRobinetteKowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Amazon Page

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.

Episode 40: Rebecca Roanhorse

A 45-minute conversation with Rebecca Roanhorse, Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award-winning author of Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts, the first two books in the Sixth World series, plus the Star Wars novel Resistance Reborn and the middle-grade novel Race to the Sun (Rick Riordan Presents), and multiple short stories. She won the Astounding (formerly Campbell) Award for Best New Writer in 2018.

Website
www.rebeccaroanhorse.com

Twitter
@RoanhorseBex

Facebook
@roanhorsebex

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Rebecca Roanhorse is a Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award-winning speculative fiction writer, and the recipient of the 2018 Astounding (formerly Campbell) Award for Best New Writer. Her novel Trail of Lightning, book one in the Sixth World series, won the Locus Award for best first novel, and is a Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy finalist. It was also selected as an Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Library Journal, and NPR Best Book of 2018, among others. Book two in the series, Storm of Locusts, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Her newest novel, Resistance Reborn, is part of Star Wars: Journey to the Rise of Skywalker. Her middle-grade novel, Race to the Sun, for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, will release in January 2020, and her epic fantasy novel Between Earth and Sky will follow in late 2020. Her short fiction can be found at Apex MagazineNew SunsThe Mythic Dream, and various other anthologies, and she also writes nonfiction, which can be found in UncannyStrange Horizons, and How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation, published by Macmillan. She lives in northern New Mexico with her husband, daughter, and pups.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Rebecca.

Well, thank you for having me.

I always look for connections and we have a…we haven’t met, but you were born in Arkansas, lived in Texas, and went to university in New Mexico, and I was born in New Mexico, lived in Texas, and went to university in Arkansas. So there’s a certain…

Wow. Small world.

…although I live in Canada. Yeah, I was born in Silver City, New Mexico. My parents were living in a little town called Bayard down there, so…but didn’t live there very long.

Yeah. That is south and I’m in the north, but I know where it is.

So, let’s go back into the mists of time, as I like to say to my guests, and talk about where you grew up and how you got interested in writing and in speculative fiction in particular. Most of us start with reading, and I think from reading some of your other interviews that that was kind of the case for you, too.

Yeah, absolutely. Always a huge science fiction/fantasy fan. As long as I can remember, I’ve been reading in the genre. And I think really my first sort of big “Wow!” book was Dune by Frank Herbert. I read that one, and that blew the doors wide open. You know, in the fantasy realm, you know, of course, I read the Belgariad, I read all the Wheel of Time books, like those were…

All of them?

Well, OK, not all of them. That’s true. Good point! I haven’t read the last few. I think I tapped out at, like, I don’t know, probably book five or six or something, now I can’t even remember, but I’m very excited for the Amazon show that is coming. I’m really curious to see what they do with it.

So you were born in Arkansas. You grew up in Texas. But then you ended up in New Mexico and you didn’t actually study writing at university. Were you writing as a kid?

Yeah, absolutely. So, I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. My mom is actually from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, which is in New Mexico. And so, I didn’t return to New Mexico until law school, actually. So, I did my undergraduate on the East Coast and a master’s degree. But when I was in Fort Worth, I was already writing. I think I wrote my first, I would say my first science-fiction short story, when I was in seventh grade. I always joke about…we had a science report and we were supposed to, like, give some very dry facts about the planets, like, you know, how big they are and how far apart they are and that sort of thing, and I turned it into this very dramatic telling of this astronaut doing research, who for some reason, I can’t remember now, had to, like, commit suicide by driving into the sun at the end. So it was very much like, “Tell my wife and kids I love them,” you know, and then he’s dead. And I turned that in for my science project and my teacher was, ah, not as impressed as I had been with my own work. I got a B-plus or something, because that was not the assignment. But yeah, you know, from there I was hooked, and I’ve been sort of writing my own stuff ever since. I kind of…I only got serious about writing…I just did it for my own pleasure. I was a practicing attorney for ten years. And before that, I was a computer programmer, actually, for ten years. And just, writing was in the background. It was just something that I loved to do for myself. I never even thought about getting published until about 2016, when I decided to take it a little more seriously.

Now, did you show your writing to your friends when you were writing as a young writer? I often ask that question because it’s something I urge young writers to do when I’m teaching writing, because it’s a way to find out if you can tell stories that people like. Apparently your teacher was not completely impressed with your first effort, but did you share your stories with other people?

Yeah. So, in eighth grade, I had a great eighth-grade English teacher, and we actually did a group novel, like, each week, you know, came up with the whole story as a class, and then we each were responsible for a chapter. And it was…I don’t know, there were some…I kind of dominated the, as I recall, a lot of the worldbuilding, because I was really into it. And there were some smugglers and there was some, you know, sort of galactic police, and, you know, this sort of thing. And I definitely shared that one. I probably overshared that, I think I forced that on people.

And then, all through high school, or at least my last couple of years of high school, I guess, I was an editor for our creative-writing magazine. And so, not only did I get to do some editing, which was basically like, just, picking what stories were going to be in the magazine, but I put a lot of my work into that as well. And a lot of that was poetry or, you know, very short fiction, like excerpts…you know, I don’t know, what you would maybe call vignettes or something, maybe a little flash fiction, but I don’t think we called it that back then. But, yeah, so I think those years I was always sharing, probably oversharing. And then…I guess for some of my time I had a friend who wrote as well, and we would share stories, like she would write something, you know, we’d be critique partners. But only for fun. It was never really serious. But I was never shy about showing my work per se.

Well, I was also interested when you…you didn’t study writing, but what you studied is very interesting, because you received a B.A. in religious studies from Yale, and a master’s in theology from Union Theological Seminary. That’s an interesting background for a science fiction/fantasy writer. Has that fed into your work going forward? And the law degree, too? I mean, at least with the law degree, you certainly use a lot of words, being a lawyer. My niece is a lawyer, so…she started as an English major, so…so has all that contributed to writing, do you think?

You know, as we’ll get to Trail of Lightning, there is a lot, actually, of cool stuff in Trail of Lightning, so that definitely did. I talk about checkerboard lands and things like that, and that is all real. You know, I think the religious studies and theology degree probably feed into my worldbuilding more than I realize and probably affect what it is that I like to talk about. You know, I like to talk about, sort of the gods, and sort of spirituality and things like that, and religion, and those are my interests, so I’m sure they feed into my work probably more than I realize. I think there was someone on Twitter once that was like, once she found out I had gotten those degrees, she was like, “Oh, that makes so much more sense now.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” And she didn’t tell me, ’cause she’s like, “I don’t like to, you know, like critique people based on, like, who they are, I want the story to stand on its own,” but she felt that that gave her some sort of insight. So I guess so!

And then, when you were…you said you were lawyer for ten years, but where along there did you start trying to get published and how did that happen? “How did you break in?”, is the cliched question.

So, I was a practicing attorney with a small child, and that was just…and I think at the time, actually, I was in private practice. I later started to work for the government, and that’s a better gig. But the hours were insane, you know, and I had a small child, and so I had actually not written for quite a while, but to sort of keep myself sane and to give myself something that I just love to do, I started to write again. And then I found out about NaNoWriMo. So I’m actually a NaNoWriMo story in a lot of ways. I joined the local NaNoWriMo group here, who would meet twice a week and just write. You know, we would just sit at the coffee shop and write. And I loved it. And it gave me a schedule and it kept me, you know, sort of pushing forward.

And then after NaNoWriMo was over, there were three or four folks in the group that wanted to keep meeting. One was a romance author, she’d been…she had, like, seven books. One was more of an academic writer and one was a self-published writer. And I was like, “Sure!”, you know, “Let me join your group!”, even though I had done nothing. They let me join their group and they became my first sort of writing group, my first critique group. And I wrote the book with, you know, along with, you know, that group. And when I was done, they were like, “You know, you should try to get this published.” I was like, “Really? You think? I don’t know. You know, I just wrote this for fun.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, it’s good. You should try to get it published.”

Good advice!

Yeah, well, I sent it out through the slush. I knew nothing about publishing. I knew…I had done some research on agents and I knew which agents, you know, I was sort of interested in. And I sent it out and it got picked up. So there was no sort of magic to it. I just did it the old-fashioned way.

So the novel came first before you sold any short fiction?

Yes, the novel actually came first. I sold that in 2016, like August 2016, and then in 2017, Apex Magazine put out a call for indigenous fantasists, indigenous science fiction and fantasy. And I thought, “Oh, I should try to get into that. I should write a short piece and get it published. And maybe that will help get my name out,” because the book, it takes a year and a half for a book to come out, and, you know, Trail of Lightning wasn’t going to come out till 2018, so I was like, “I should try to get a short story published.” And, you know, I thought maybe ten, fifteen people would read it, I don’t know, I thought it would just be cool. And that got picked up and that went rather well. So, yeah, that actually came after the book. (“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience“, Apex Magazine)

That’s a little different from most writers’ experience, to have the novel go first and then start selling short fiction. So that’s why I wanted to mention it.

Yeah.

Okay, well let’s…we’ll talk about Trail of Lightning…well, I guess the whole series, but that was the first book. As I said to you, I somehow managed to schedule a whole bunch of interviews almost on top of each other, so I haven’t been able to read everybody’s books to the end, as much as I would like to, but I have read a considerable portion of it, so I know something about it. But, well, I’ll let you give a synopsis of Trail of Lightning and the setup for the whole series without spoiling anything for people who haven’t finished the book…like me.

Yeah. So, Trail of Lightning takes place in sort of a near future, after a climate apocalypse, where sort of all the world has sort of gone to hell, except for the southwest of the Americas, basically. And specifically, the book takes place on the Navajo Nation, which is now Dinétah Risen, and has become sort of a power player in the region along with some other places like New Denver and the Mormon Kingdom, and we follow a woman there who is a monster slayer, because with the sort of climate apocalypse, all the gods and heroes and monsters of traditional Navajo stories have risen up and now walk the land, like Coyote and other folks you might not be familiar with, but you will be when you read the book. And it is her job to, sort of, a) survive and b), you know, fight them, with the help of her sidekick, who is a very unconventional medicine man.

Okay. And it is a very interesting setup and an interesting character as well. So, how did the idea for it come around? That’s another cliché. Where do you get your ideas? But what was the seed for this book as you were working with this writing group? And…this was what you worked on in NaNoWriMo, was it or was this…?

Uh-huh, this what I worked on for NaNoWriMo.

Okay. So how did the idea come about?

Yeah, so, I am a huge urban fantasy fan. You know, I always say that I sort of drifted away from fantasy, from all that Wheel of Time and stuff like that, for a long time, particularly through college, because it didn’t really speak to me anymore. I didn’t feel like I saw myself in all those questing farm boys and everything, and it just sort of got a little dull for me. So I set aside fantasy for a while, but then one day I was in an airport somewhere just looking for a random book. And I came across, actually, a Laurell K. Hamilton book. If you don’t know her, she writes the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. And I picked up the book…and this is an earlier book in the series of…the later books get a little not to my taste, but the early books are great…picked it up, not knowing what it was about or who she was. And I read the back, and it was something like, “Will Anita Blake choose between her vampire lover or her werewolf lover?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but I’m about to find out.” I was just amazed a) they let you write that and b) it was on the shelf, right at the airport, and I could just pick it up. So I did. And that’s how I sort of discovered urban fantasy. And from there, I went on to all sorts of other authors, like Ilona Andrews and folks like that, and just sort of fell in love with the genre of these, like, strong, you know, women who are at the center of the story who kind of like kick ass and take on the supernatural, but at the same time have these sort of complicated love lives. I thought that was a lot of fun.

And so, that was really my inspiration for Trail of Lightning. I wanted to write an urban fantasy, but I wanted to write it in an indigenous setting with an indigenous pantheon, essentially, coming from, you know, traditional stories or myths. And then I wanted all the characters and the places and all of that to be indigenous as well, because what you do have in a lot of urban fantasy, or not a lot, but there are a few, is you often have a character that’s half-native, but they don’t…they’re not particularly native in the way their world view, you know, or the way that the story plays out, that’s just sort of a flavoring, I guess. And often the only way that they’re native is that they’re shapeshifters. And I was like, “Well, we’re not going to do that.” I wanted it to be something that felt real to me as an indigenous woman. I wanted it to be the people and the places and the things that I knew and that I had, you know, experienced. But, you know, fantasy. So that’s where that story came from.

And also, well, calling it urban fantasy…a lot of that, you know, it’s like, if you have that character, they’re in some big city somewhere, and that’s just something in their past. But this is actually set…it’s not really urban in the sense of being in a city.

Right. Right. Yeah. This is rural fantasy.

So, how did you go about…well, actually, before I get to that question, is that sort of where all of your story ideas have come from, you’ve written short stories now, and you’re writing Star Wars too. So, you know, in a more general sense, how do story ideas come to you?

Gosh. You know, I think for a writer, part of our job is to just be observant. So it can come…story ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from the news, they can come from an overheard conversation, they can come from a book you read that’s bad, if you want to do it better. I actually think I asked the influence question once to, like, John…I was on a panel, moderating, with, like, John Scalzi, and a bunch of other folks. And I asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” And they all groaned, you know, about the question. But then, as they got to talking, they realized that every one of them had written at least one book because they had read another book that they thought got it wrong. So, like, “I’m going to write my book as a correction.” And I was like, “Ah-ha!” So, yeah, I think they can come from anything. Often songs. Songs are very influential. I’ll often find a song that really captures a mood or spirit that I want to convey, and so I’ll try to, you know, turn it into words.

Well, on the, you know, reacting to other works, it’s often said that science fiction and fantasy are genres that are in conversation with themselves, because we’re all reacting to what we’ve read in the past and what we’re reading now and what other people are doing and things we like and things we don’t like. So, I don’t…I can’t think of one that I’ve written specifically where I was trying to do somebody’s…you know, do my version of something I didn’t like, but I’m sure that figures into it somewhere.

Yeah. Yeah. Even if it’s subconscious, I think we’re always sort of reacting, like you said, like, “Oh, you know, I see it done this way. Let me do it this way,” you know?

So what does your planning process look like? Your synopsizing or outlining or however it works for you. Do you do a detailed outline? Do you kind of just wing it? How does that look for you?

You know, it really depends on the book. I think that first book, because I was just writing for myself and I didn’t really know what I was doing, quite frankly, there was no outline. That was much more of a pantser kind of book and I think you can tell, for better or worse. The second book in that series, Storm of Locusts, was outlined much better. But what I did was, I wrote the beginning and then I wrote the end. And then I decided what needed to be in the middle to get me from that beginning to the end. And then I wrote that.

For books like Star Wars, you have to create a very detailed online, and then it has to be approved by six people at Lucasfilm and ten people at Del Rey, so you really don’t get the opportunity to wing it. So for that one, yes, I wrote probably, I don’t know, a twenty-page outline. I knew exactly what I was going to write. And you have so little time to write it. The turnaround time is pretty crazy. So that actually helped. They know what they’re doing.

They’ve been doing it a long time.

Yes, exactly. So I guess it really varies. And, you know, for this epic fantasy that I’m writing, I have a very detailed outline, because I have a lot of voices to manage and I have a lot of places, the worldbuilding is much more massive. And so I think if I wasn’t organized, I personally would get lost. It would be difficult.

Well, and speaking of worldbuilding and planning, there must be a considerable amount of research going into these books. Is that a fair statement?

You know, yes and no. You know, Trail of Lightning, I wrote what I knew. I know that world. I lived on the Navajo reservation. My husband is Navajo, I have Navajo family, so I didn’t actually do a whole lot of research for that. I confirmed some things that I knew about the stories and things like that, like character names and how to spell things. And there’s always different versions of stories, all across the rez, ’cause it’s a huge reservation. And then, you know, what I wanted to fantasize. And I mentioned before that, you know, I had practiced law, actually, on the Navajo Nation, so a lot of the little things, like jurisdiction and checkerboard land and things like that, I knew from, you know, my practice. So when I put those in the stories, I didn’t have to do research for that. I knew it.

But, you know, for Star Wars, I actually did a ton of research because it’s such a vast universe and you wanted things right. And they do have folks at Lucasfilm who live and breathe the Star Wars universe, so that’s very helpful. And then I think for this epic fantasy that I’m writing, I’m doing quite a bit of research as well.

Now, what does your actual writing process look like? Are you a sit-down-for-a-certain-number-of-hours-a-day at-your-desk typing kind of writer, or do you like write with a quill pen on a parchment underneath a tree?

What is most effective for me is, I am good in the early hours, and late hours. So I think what you need to do is discover when you’re at your best, and when your imagination sort of flags. So I’ll write, maybe, in the mornings from…I’ll drop my daughter off at school and then, let’s say, write from 8 to 12. But I know from, like, 12 to 4, it’s going to be like slogging through mud. I mean, the words might come, but they’re not going to be as good, and they’re just not going to…it’s going to be hard. So, often I’ll take that time, that’s when I do my e-mails or do other things, run errands, whatever needs to get done that day. And then I will pick up…if I have time at 4, but if not, often I will wait till my daughter is in bed and start again and write from like 9 to 12 or 10 to 2, or something like that. So that’s for the first step. And then, if I need speed, I will sketch out the scene beforehand on paper, like, pen and paper, so that I know what it is that I want to write, so I’m not trying to think about what I’m, you know, come up with ideas while I’m typing. I’m typing to get everything done, but I already know what I’m going to say. So I’ll sketch out the scene, you know, put in some important dialogue or things I know. But I will know, you know, how the scene works, where the reversal is, who’s involved, where it’s set. All of that stuff before I start typing.

I wanted to ask you about the voice of the book. You wrote it in first person. Why did you choose first person and what appeals to you about that point of view?

Yeah. So, not all my books are in first person. Trail of Lightning and…like that series….

Yeah.

Star Wars clearly is not. And the epic fantasy is not. But, you know, first person is the conceit that you often find in urban fantasy, so that makes sense. I was also writing a very difficult character. I think that Maggie, who is the main character, is a challenge. A lot of people don’t like her, which I think is fair, because…

She’s not warm and fuzzy.

No, she isn’t. And I think, you know, she doesn’t even like herself very much at the beginning of the book, right? So…and she’s a killer. And so, I felt that if I were going to create a character like that and I was gonna ask the reader to come along with me, it needed to be in first person. You needed to see her, you know, to be in her head and have her perspective on things, or I don’t think it would work as well.

Yeah, I think if she was a third-person character, she would be really hard to warm up to. She would be very scary, I think as third person without some way into her head to see how she feels and is thinking about things. So, what does your revision process look like, once you’ve got a draft done? Do you do a complete rewrite from the beginning or do you kind of rewrite as you go, or how does that work for you?

I edit as I go, normally. What I’ll do is write however much I’m writing that day. I usually have some sort of word-count goal generally, and how I get to that is, I know what my deadline is, I sort of divide that up, how many words I need to write a day to get to that deadline, and then that is sort of the goal. But knowing that I’m going to, you know, miss days. I don’t write every single day. Sometimes something happens and you just can’t. Or sometimes your brain just says no, and you can’t. So, yes, so I have that sort of in mind. I’ll write every day that is on, you know, sort of my schedule try to get to it. Then the next morning I will review what I’ve written, do a light edit and then start with whatever the next thing is. And so on and so forth.

So, by the time I have finished a draft, it has at least been edited once. And then I will go through and like, do a normal, another edit, you know, likely. But I do not…well, this epic fantasy, I am doing a rewrite. This is my first time to do this. But all the other books I’ve not done a rewrite. I edit as I go and I try to draft pretty clean. But this one is just…the whole story has changed. So I’m having to do a rewrite.

And then, once it reaches your editor, have they…what kind of things have they asked you to do? Have there been big changes or they’re pretty happy with it, or how does that work for you?

Well, they tend to be pretty happy with it. Because I do sort of, you know, plan it out. I’m trying to think…you know, probably the most heavily edited book I had, actually, is the children’s book, because that was my first children’s book and it’s the Rick Riordan imprint, and they know what they want, you know, they know exactly what kind of story they want. And it is very hard to write for children. It’s much harder to write for children than it is for adults, in my opinion, because children don’t come with experiences, they don’t come with this sort of set of things, references that you can make that they will pick up on, so you don’t have to spell everything out. For kids, you have to learn everything now.

I remember there was one edit where…in my children’s book there’s this bodyguard that gets left behind, you know, to watch over the protagonist, ’cause she’s in trouble. And I had said something like, you know, “she waiting by the car,” or something. And my editor came back with this whole list of questions about “Well, what is she doing by the car? Well, why would she do that? Well, shouldn’t she come inside if it’s…” And I was like, “Wow, really? We’re really thinking this hard about this throwaway, you know, like, scene?” But those are the kinds of questions kids want answered. You can’t leave them hanging. So I had to bring her in the house and have her sit on the sofa and read a magazine, and, you know, and that’s, you know, because kids need that concrete sort of storytelling. And they also believe what you say, so you have to be…you know, you have to believe what you say, as well, because you might be their first sort of experience of a particular incident or a particular idea, and they take that to heart. So you really have to be more aware of your words, I think.

On the reference side…I have a young adult series called The Shards of Excalibur, and the second book…it’s changed publishers, but the original publisher had a very young editor, who was probably twenty-one or twenty-two or something like that, and I had made some reference to somebody looking like they had come from a Dallas-themed costume party because of the way they were dressed, and she said, “What is Dallas except a city in Texas?” And I said, “OK. First of all, you’re very young. But secondly, you’re absolutely right, because no teenager is going to get that reference, likely.” So, yes, it is very different

I was going to ask you about the children’s book. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

It is sort of a kid’s version of Trail of Lightning, I guess, like for the middle grades, so eight to twelve, that age group. It focuses on seventh-grader Nizhoni Begay, who can see monsters and no one else around her can. And she is sort of your typical seventh-grader, which means she’s kind of a mess. She wants to be popular, but she’s not. She wants to be athletic, but she’s not. And so, she’s, sort of fighting, you know, that sort of stuff, like how to be cool or how to get likes on the Internet. And at the same time, her mother has left and her father is sort of an artist type, who sort of like doesn’t really pay close attention to what her and her brother do. And so, when monsters show up and threaten the family, it’s sort of up to her to step up and save the day. And then along the way, it explores a lot of Navajo traditional stories, as she has to follow in the footsteps of Navajo heroes in order to get some magical weapons and fight the bad guy.

It sounds like…it does some very much like a middle-grade version of Trail of Lightning.

Yeah. Absolutely.

Hopefully the middle-grade readers and young-adult readers of that will go on to read the adult series as they get older.

That’d be great.

Well, you had great critical response, obviously, and, you know, one or two award nominations and stuff like that along the way. Were you surprised by the reaction that the book got when it came out? Were you happy? How did you feel about that?

Yeah, absolutely surprised. I…like I said before, I didn’t know anything about publishing. I didn’t know about the field in a professional sense. So, I wasn’t really familiar with a lot of the awards and everything. I mean, I was from the year before, clearly, when my short fiction did well, but I did not…really, I thought Trail of Lightning would be sort of a niche book. I thought there’d be a certain, you know, kind of person who liked it and…so, yeah, I was. It was all pretty shocking, you know? Pretty exciting, I mean, clearly. But the fact that that book got published to begin with, that I could write a book like that and a big five publisher would pick it up, and then for it to do as well as it did. Yes, I think it’s pretty amazing.

It’s a pretty amazing list of awards and award nominations you’ve picked up, for sure.

I want to go to the big philosophical questions. Well, it’s really one question that I always ask, which is, “Why do you write?” and then, subsidiary, to that, “Why do you specifically write the kind of thing that you write?” and on an even broader level, “Why do you think any of us write stories that are fantastic?” But start with you. Why do you write?

I think I write to keep myself sane. I think that’s where it started. I am a much nicer, happier person when I’m writing. Just ask my husband. He will attest. But yeah, I mean, I write because I have stories and I did not see a lot of my stories, the kind of stories that I wanted to tell…I saw none, actually, let me rephrase that, out there in the world. And so, I think that’s why I write what I do write, because I feel like those stories need to be told. And no one is telling them. I think those readers need a chance to see themselves in stories, and no one is giving them that. And so I’m excited to be able to do that.

Why the fantastical? I think because I’m a huge fan of it. I mean, I think that’s what I prefer to read. That’s what I read growing up. That was what I’ve always read. I find books, you know, sort of literary realism type books tend to not be my thing. I tend to tap out. So why the fantastic? It’s the genre that I love, that sense of possibility and fantastic, the world building. Those are all the things that really appeal to me.

And what do you think…what do you think is the urge for all of us to write and tell these kinds of stories? Where do you think that urge comes from?

I don’t know. I think that’s like a bigger human urge. I can’t think of, like, a culture or a time when there weren’t stories of the fantastic, you know, whether they were used to sort of explain the world around us or whether they were used purely to entertain or a little bit of both. I don’t think you could, people would listen to your, you know, preaching about the world around you unless you were entertaining, right? These are stories of heroes and monsters and villains and these sort of large-scale, you know, epic stories, the characters. I don’t know. It’s just…I think that’s just part of who we are as humans.

This podcast is, of course, called The Worldshapers…and you’ve sort of touched on this a little bit…I think it’s safe to say that shaping the world is a bit grand. I mean, very few of us actually shape the entire world in fiction or any sort of writing. But certainly we can reach out to specific readers and touch them in some fashion and influence how they think. Is that something you hope you have done and will do as you continue to write?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I know that—’cause I have been sent emails and been told at readings and stuff—that it’s a pretty big deal for an indigenous woman to write in the genre, and especially something like Star Wars. And so, I have had readers tell me that it’s a big deal to them. You know, oftentimes, especially kids, they might read a story with a native character, but to have a native author write a story is a whole ’nother level of, “What? You can do that?” So I guess my feeling when I saw Laurell K. Hamilton, “You could do that? They let you do that?” And so for them, that was, you know, it’s often an idea like, “Wow, I didn’t even know that was an option. I didn’t even know that was a possibility.” And that, you know, is the world to me. If I can inspire a whole truckload of other native and black girls and boys to write, then that’s amazing. More than I could ask for.

We’ve…it’s interesting. I live in Saskatchewan, and there’s a First Nations man—also a lawyer—Harold Johnson, who wrote a climate-fiction novel (Corvus, Thistledown Press – Ed.) set in northern Saskatchewan, where basically the north becomes a powerhouse because of all the climate refugees fleeing to the north. And, you know, I was on a panel with him, actually, on Words on the Street in Saskatoon, and I hear some of that same echo in what he has said and what you’re saying.

Well, that’s very similar sort of set up, too, to my book. I have not read him, for the record, but that’s…I’m sure that’s probably a thing that a lot of indigenous people think about. So that’s not surprising.

He’s an interesting, he’s a very interesting writer. I mean, he’s not primarily by any means a speculative fiction writer, but he does do some. Of course, it’s all through Canadian publishers. You’d be unlikely to have run across him, but if you wanted to look him up, you might find him interesting. Harold. Harold Johnson. There’s also another Harold Johnson who’s a game designer, I think. That’s not him.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the epic fantasy that’s coming up, because my next question is, “What are you working on now?” So, what is that all about?

Yeah, so, I can’t say much because I am in a rewrite, so who knows? But…

It has a title.

It does have a title, because I have written a version of it. I’m just rewriting that now. So I’m not sure what’s going to stay and what’s going to go. But generally, I wanted to write an epic fantasy, sort of in that vein of, you know, the epic fantasy that we’re familiar with, but focused on the Americas, like cultures, like sort of, you know, cultures that reflect or, you know, sort of parallel in a secondary world, cultures of the Americas.

And so, my ancestors, the ancestral Puebloans, lived in places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, which are big in the American Southwest. I don’t know if everybody knows about them. And they were previously called the Anasazi, but we’ve moved away from that term and now we refer to them as the ancestral Puebloans, but sort of these cliffs cities that were, you know, sort of obsessed with astronomy and, you know, tracking the heavens and were centers of…both religious centers and trade centers. And so, I’m very interested in sort of the trade networks and Cahokia and Mesa Verde and the classical Mayan period and creating a world sort of centered around those cultures. But in a secondary world, clearly this is fantasy.

I had an opportunity…I guess it was when WorldCon was in Denver, I think, and then we went on down to New Mexico, which was the first time I’d been down there in ages. And then we went to…I can’t remember the name of the park we went to (It was Bandelier National Monument – Ed.), but it was one with the cliff dwellings, and (I remember) being fascinated by that culture and especially the fact that they had all that trade with other cultures at the time. So, it sounds like it’ll be a very interesting setting for a for a fantasy novel.

I hope so.

And if you want to look even further down the road, how do you see your writing career developing over the next few years? What do you hope for?

Oh, gosh. Well, I’m under another three-book deal with Saga, so there will be two more books in the Sixth World series, for a total of four. I’ll have Between Earth and Sky, and that hopefully we’ll start a new series. And then I have a couple of other projects that I can’t talk about yet, because publishing is all about, you know, keeping secrets for a year. But I think I’m going to be writing for quite a while, and I’m thrilled. I feel very honored and very lucky to be able to do that. So, yeah.

And where can people find you online?

They can find me on my Web site at RebeccaRoanhorse.com. I’m also on Twitter @RoanhorseBex. And I occasionally stop in on Facebook. But it is not my favorite site, Facebook. And that would be facebook.com/roanhorsebex as well.

All right. Well, I think that’ll do it. So, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.

Thank you. Yeah, I absolutely did.

Bye for now.

Episode 39: Garth Nix

An hour-long conversation New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix, author of the Old Kingdom series, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others: his books have sold more than six million copies around the world and been translated into 42 languages.

Website
garthnix.com

Facebook
facebook.com/garthnix
facebook.com/garthnixauthor

Twitter
@GarthNix

Garth Nix’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix has been a full-time writer since 2001, but has also worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, and bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve. He has written numerous books, including the Old Kingdom series, beginning with Sabriel, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others. He also writes short fiction, with more than 60 stories published in anthologies and magazines. More than six million copies of his books have been sold around the world, and his work has been translated into 42 languages.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Garth.

Thank you, Edward, it’s great to be talking to you.

We’ve only met once. I think that was at a world fantasy convention in Toronto. Well, actually, technically, I think it was in Richmond Hill. But you could see Toronto in the distance.

You could see it very vaguely in the distance. It was a shock, I think, to quite a few international persons such as myself to discover that it was not quite in Toronto, despite being called Toronto.

It was a bit of a shock to me, even though I live in Canada, I was expecting it to be a little closer to downtown, as well.

Well, I think we did have the misfortune that the railway was being worked on and the other public transport. So I think if everything had been up and running it wouldn’t have felt quite so far away. But, of course, we were just talking about how with World Fantasy, it doesn’t really matter. That convention is a travelling community that pops up, and you tend to spend all your time with all the other writers and publishers and editors and agents all hanging out anyway. So maybe it doesn’t really matter so much.

It was still a fun convention, even though…

Yeah, it was great. Yeah, it was very good.

...though it wasn’t right downtown. And the other thing I always like to mention, you know, when I’m looking for connections…this is not exactly a connection with you, but I wrote a fantasy trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima as E.C. Blake, and some reviewer said that they liked my fifteen-year-old female protagonist, she was their favorite female heroine since Sabriel.

Oh, that’s a nice thing to say. That is a connection. Yeah.

I considered that a great, great compliment because I really love those books, so…

Thank you.

We’re going to start, as I always start with my guests, by taking you back in time. How…well, first of all, where did you grow up and all that sort of thing, but how did you become interested in writing and fantasy, and which came first? Were you interested in the fantastical and science fiction before you started writing, or did the writing come first and then you migrated into it? How did that all work out for you?

Sure, it’s a good question. I grew up in Canberra, which is the federal capital of Australia. It’s still a very small city, but it was a very small city when I was growing up there in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Canberra is kind of like the Washington, D.C., equivalent, except that it’s a planned city. It really was only built from the, sort of, 1930s onwards. When I was growing up there, it only had about 200,000 people. It’s quite a small city, and it’s also in the middle…it’s in the bush, the Australian bush. It’s sometimes called the bush capital because it’s got so many trees. So it was kind of like a country town, but then it had the weird extra layer of all the federal government stuff and also all the things like Washington, D.C. has, on a smaller scale, like the National Library and the National Museum and Parliament House and all that sort of stuff as well. So it was an unusual city. It had a very, very good public education system then—it still does, perhaps not quite as good—which I benefited from, and a very good library system, which I also benefited from.

And my parents are readers. Both my parents were science fiction and fantasy readers, amongst many other things. My father is a scientist and my mother is an artist. So, from a very early age, I was exposed to all kinds of books. Our house was full of books. There was a library between my home and my school, which I stopped at every afternoon–a children’s library, a specialist children’s library. And I read everything. I love all kinds of books. I do love fantasy and science fiction, but I also love historical novels and thrillers and contemporary literature and classics, all kinds of stuff. And non-fiction as well. I’ve always been fascinated with all kinds of non-fiction.

I actually noticed, Edward, that you’ve written a lot of non-fiction, looking at your bio before I started to talk to you.

Anything for a buck, basically. But also, I do love that stuff. I love learning about things and writing about them.

And I think it’s good for writers, too. You need to read non-fiction as well as fiction to fill your mind with all kinds of information you can draw upon to create fiction. And non-fiction is very, very good fuel for that.

So, I was always reading, there were books everywhere. My parents read science fiction and fantasy. I probably had more than most people, in part because my father used to spend quite a lot of time in the U.S. working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations and a few other…lots of international programs, some of which were run out of the U.S. (One mysteriously always had to meet in Hawaii every year. I wonder why that was.) But he would bring back American paperbacks, which we would not otherwise get, because Australia, particularly in that period, most of the books came from the U.K. So, I was actually exposed to many American authors that not all Australians would necessarily have been and would not have been known in the U.K. So, I guess in a way I had a perfect environment to become a writer of fantasy and science fiction because of that reading.

And I was always very keen on making up stories. I’ve always loved making stuff up and trying to get people to believe it. Sometimes I joke that if I wasn’t a writer, I’d probably be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I like to make people believe in stuff. I like to write stories that feel real. I like to tell stories that feel real. And there’s not a big step, I think, from making up those kinds of fictions to getting to some kind of complex scam making people believe things. But luckily, I haven’t gone down that road as yet. I’m sticking to the fiction.

So, you started writing pretty young then, as a child?

Yeah, I did actually start…I loved the idea of my own books. I made little books of my own from a very young age. In fact, I have one from when I was about six. Well, I actually do have one when I’m about six. I don’t take it with me. I have a sort of little replica that I bring with me I use in talks sometimes to demonstrate how far I’ve come in my writing since I was six years old. At least I hope I have.

So, yeah, I was making little books. I was writing stories. I wrote stories in school. But I didn’t actually plan to be a writer. I loved books. I loved writing. But actually, right up until the end of high school, when I was thinking about what I am going to do, in the last few years, I was thinking I would actually join the regular Australian army and go to our equivalent of West Point. But I actually joined the Army Reserve and I was a part-time soldier for about five years, and that convinced me I didn’t want to be a regular soldier. It was actually…it was a very good experience and I really mostly enjoyed it, with some reservations. But I also realized that the life that I would lead as a regular Army soldier would be more contained and closed, the environment would be more closed, than if I did something else.

So, for a few years, I was thinking that’s what I would do. I would go to what was then the Royal Australian Military College and be an officer and learn, and do a university degree, and become a commissioned officer. But then I realized that, “Hang on, I actually don’t want to do that. What am I going to do instead?

And I worked…I got a job after I left school, I worked in a government job for a year, and I saved my money. Then I went travelling in the U.K. and Europe. And while I was doing that, I re-read lots of my favourite books, particularly children’s books and particularly English ones, and I read them in the places where they were set. So a lot of classic fantasy like Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

Oh!

Yeah, it’s a fantastic book, in Cheshire. I read other children’s classics, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District.

Oh, thank you so much for mentioning that one.

Well, they’re wonderful books. I mean, I still re-read them. That also…I mean, those books made me interested in sailing.

Me, too.

You know, you get so much from those books. And then Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth, you know, historical novels, children’s historical novels, were also very much part of my reading. I read The Eagle of the Ninth while I was visiting Hadrian’s Wall and so on. And I while I was doing that, I also started to seriously write, whereas before I’d written stories off and on. I wrote a couple of stories and sent them out, and I also started a novel. I wrote half a novel while I was travelling around. And of course, this is back in the day. So, I had a portable typewriter, a Silver Reed typewriter, and I would type away in the various places that I was I was staying, or actually often not in the places, the youth hostels I was staying, because it would annoy people. So, I would actually go and type just, you know, by the side of the road or whatever, because I bought a little car. Terrible, terrible old car that…once the wheel literally did fall off and I also caught a light once. But it also got me around about 10,000 miles of travelling. And yeah, in the course of that time, I thought, I do want to be a writer. This is what I want to do.

But I also, because I was a reader and I loved nonfiction, one of the areas of non-fiction I read about was publishing and writers and writers’ biographies. And even back then, I realized that a writer’s…economically, a writer’s life is generally very difficult and you need a day job. So…and I’m actually kind of astonished, looking back, that even at nineteen I did have enough common sense to realize I would need a job. That was probably one of the few areas where I had sufficient common sense, but I did. And so, I made a plan to come back to Australia, go to university, get a degree, because that would enable me to get a better day job, and also just to continue writing, which is pretty much what I did.

And when I got back to Australia, I had great encouragement, very early encouragement, because I got a telegram—this was shortly before telegrams were completely phased out, and, in fact, I didn’t even know they still existed at that point until I got one—which was from Penguin Books in the U.K., saying, “We want to publish your story, ‘Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo,’ and we’ll pay ninety pounds.” Prepaid telegram, reply yes or no. And I hadn’t even sent it to them, so I was extremely puzzled, but also very happy. I unraveled this mystery many years later. I’d sent the story to the gaming magazine White Dwarf, because I also wrote, I had a little bit of a success, right, writing gaming articles about Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and so on. And they, at that point, they did occasionally publish fiction. This is, again, a long way back, the magazine was very different. And so, I’d sent it to White Dwarf, so it was a great surprise to get this telegram from Penguin Books saying, “We want it for our magazine, called Warlock.” And, anyway, as it transpired, I discovered much later, an editor from White Dwarf had left to join Penguin, to work on their magazine Warlock, which was for their Fighting Fantasy books, was in support of their Fighting Fantasy books. And he’d actually just taken…I don’t know, I guess his submission inventory from White Dwarf with him, including my story. I met him years later and he said that he’d just taken his whole folder with him and bought some of the stuff for Warlock.

But I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic.” Ninety pounds, this is in 19…this was in 1982, I think, it was quite a lot of money, particularly in Australian dollars at the time. And I thought, “Wow, I can write a short story every couple of weeks and get this money and, you know, it’ll be brilliant.” But, of course, I couldn’t actually sell a short story for about another five years after that. I wrote about forty without being able to sell any of them. Which is, again, of course, a very common experience. But at least I had the early encouragement of that first short story sale.

I reacted to the Arthur Ransome reference because they were books that were very important to me when I was growing up and I spent my…in Canada, we got a family allowance. I think it was $10 a month per kid. And my parents gave that to me as my allowance and I saved that up and bought all the Arthur Ransome books.

Great, fantastic.

And in my last book before this, my current one is Master of the World, book two in the series, but in the first one, Worldshaper, there is an occasion in which there is a…they get on to a sailing yacht, and I named the yacht Amazon and there’s some reference in there. So, I do try to reference those books when I can.

Yeah, well. These things, books, your childhood books are so important for what you do later. And I think whether you even consciously reference them, they’re there, they’re deeply embedded in the reservoir you call upon to write. So, they’re always present. And sometimes there’s conscious references and sometimes there’s conscious resonance and sometimes it’s unconscious. But having read them is the necessary is the necessary part of the equation.

Now, you got your B.A. in Professional Writing. What kind of a course was that? Is that a creative writing course or is it more of a journalism course or what? I haven’t quite seen that phrase before.

Yeah, well, it’s very old. They don’t actually offer that anymore. But at the time, that was the only writing degree offered in Australia. Again, a very different time. Of course, everywhere offers creative writing or writing degrees now. But at the time, what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education, that’s now the University of Canberra, it was the only place in Australia that offered any kind of writing degree. And principally, it actually was a journalism school. And most people there were majoring in journalism, but they also had a screenwriting stream, which included a small element of prose writing, fiction writing. So, when I was looking at what I could do, I wanted to get a degree mainly as a kind of ticket to show at door to get a better day job. I thought, “Well, I might as well do a writing degree.” And it was luckily in my home city, Canberra. so it was just much more doable in terms of, you know, I could stay with my parents, which I did most of the time, and…you know, it was just logistically easy. So I was very lucky it was there.

And it was actually a really good experience. I majored in screenwriting, and I guess it’s like a lot of those writing degrees, in the sense that someone once said, “You can’t be taught writing, but you can learn.” And really, I think the most valuable thing for me was that it set up an environment in which you’re expected to do a lot of writing and you were in the company of other people who were very keen to write. So, I met some very good friends there and reconnected with some old friends who coincidentally just happened to be there, I had no idea, old school friends who also wanted to be writers, and being in the company of those people and also having the workshop experience, which is he typical one of where you pass work around in a, you know, tutorial group or workshop group and discuss it, very much as many workshops do now, that was very valuable. To be honest, most of the actual lectures and so forth were not particularly useful. But being in an environment where you need to create work all the time and it has to be on time…because they treated it like a…the journalism strain was very strong…it was treated as if it was a job at a newspaper. If you didn’t file on time, you got zero. That was it. There was no, “I’m sorry, I’ve been ill,” or whatever, it was just zero, because they said, “This is what will happen at the newspaper.” You have to…if you’re told to write something, that’s your job, you’ve got to write it. So that was all very, very useful. So, it was a good three years.

And I started theatre there as well and did some productions. I ended up directing a production of The Crucible in my last year. And it was all…it was fun and it was good experience. And…I think I probably would have kept writing anyway. But it really did help shape some of the discipline to do that. And I wrote probably half my first published novel, The Ragwitch, while I was doing that course, for that course, too. So that was also a good thing.

I’m interested in the theater experience. I’ve talked to a number of writers who have some theater experience and I’m a theater guy myself—I’ve written plays and I’m a professional actor and I’ve directed—and I always like to ask if you find that the theater experience helps you in your fiction writing. Orson Scott Card is one who says it does, and I just talked to James Alan Gardner, and he said it does. What was your experience?

Well, I think it all helps, to be honest. I think all the cross-media stuff helps. The screenwriting experience is also very helpful. I mean, to be honest, I think everything helps. The experience of life helps. Reading books helps. Strange knowledge of rock formations might help. You know, anything can help, but particularly in terms of writing. I think experience of different ways to tell stories and convey stories to people, whether it’s visually or aurally or, you know, using different senses…and theater in particular is often very good for experimental ways to communicate stories. People are always looking at different ways to stage and perform. And that makes you think about, well, “Hang on, maybe I could do something different just on a page, as well.” So, it was very useful. And, I mean, I directed a play, I performed in plays. I’m a terrible actor, but it was probably useful experience and useful for, again, also useful for something that’s very much part of a modern author’s life, which is, of course, talking about your work, because we’re all expected to do that nowadays and need to do that, whether it’s in person at bookshop events or it’s on YouTube or even in a podcast like this. I’m sure some of that early actor training, even though I was a terrible actor on stage or screen, it probably helps me play myself, as it were, and to get across what I want to get across. And it was just interesting. It was just a good thing to do.

I also worked as a stagehand after, briefly, after university, as an additional job. I worked in a bookshop, but also I worked as a stagehand on a couple of different productions with a very good friend of mine, also a writer. And that was a good experience, too, which I’ve not drawn upon directly for a story, but I think some of the conversations we had working on that show and the sort of cynical realism of backstage people, it was an exposure to characters you might not otherwise have been exposed to, and, as with anything somewhat out of what you normally do, was very useful. And some of the old, literally old, as in they would probably be in their 60s, people who worked in the theater, and had done for forever, were such interesting characters and had some very interesting stories to tell. So things like that. I think everything’s useful.

Yeah, theatre people have lots of interesting stories to tell if they’ve been in it for a while.

Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Now you mentioned The Ragwitch, which was your first published novel. When did that come about? You went on to work in publishing. How did that all line up?

Well, as I said, I realised I would need a day job, and I was at university and thinking about what I could do. I did actually think about journalism for a while. Many of my friends were journalists.

I did it!

Original 1990 cover of The Ragwitch

Yeah, well it’s…and of course, again, it’s a very sort of standard sort of thing. So I toyed with that, but I found that I didn’t…while I could adequately write everything, I could write whatever was required, I actually didn’t particularly like having to stick to the facts, which is a bit of a drawback in journalism, or it should be a drawback. And so I was thinking, “What else can I do?” And I was still fascinated with books and really interested in publishing, so I thought, “OK, well, that’s what I’ll do. My day job will be publishing, and” (I was still, you know, I was writing all the time) “I can continue to write.” And those would feed off each other. And one of the classic ways—and then looking around to see how I could do that, of course, one of the classic ways, and it’s still one of the best ways to get into publishing, is to get a job in a bookshop. So that’s what I did, and I worked in a wonderful bookshop where quite a number of my friends also worked in Canberra, and that then led to…I got a job as a sales representative for a very small publisher, which was in Sydney, so I moved to a much bigger city, but all the time I was writing and at that time I was finishing The Ragwitch.

So, from that small publisher, which was a small trade publisher, I then moved to an academic press on the production side as an editorial assistant. And while I was there, and I was sort of working my way—I worked my way up there to be an editor and then actually the publications manager there—but during that time, when I was at that academic publisher, I got The Ragwitch published. But in the usual way. I researched publishers. I looked at who was publishing that kind of novel. I submitted it to seven publishers, most of whom rejected it. Two, I think, never replied at all. And then one day I came home and there was a message on my answering machine, again back in the old days, a cassette answering machine, from a publisher saying, “Can you come and talk to us about it?” And so it was picked up and published in 1991. Which is a long time ago.

But there’s been several since then.

More than several. Yes. Yes, I’ve managed to keep going, which is basically the whole secret, really, as I often say to people. The answer to any publishing problem is to write another book, you know, whether it’s problems of success or failure or things not working out as you would hope. Write another book. It gives you another chance. Another spin of the wheel.

Yeah, I think it was maybe Stephen King that said…it’s usually either Stephen King or Ray Bradbury who says these things…

Absolutely. Yeah.

That the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that the published writer didn’t give up.

They probably both said that in different ways, actually. And it’s true. Though it can be extraordinarily difficult to keep going because of all kinds of factors. And I’ve been very fortunate across the board, really, in terms of who I am and my background and where I live and even such things as, you know, the fact that we have essentially free health care here in Australia makes a massive difference. I’m very well aware of many of my American friends who are successful authors, but they can’t give up their day jobs to write more because they need the day job for the medical insurance. So there’s, like, those kinds of factors. And I’ve been very lucky.

Well, we’re going to talk about your creative process and we’re going to focus on your latest, which is Angel Mage, which unfortunately I have not had a chance to read. But that’s OK, because I’m going to get you to synopsize it for people who haven’t read it, like me.

I’ll just read it to you on the podcast, Edward. It’s only going to take about eighteen hours. That’s all right, isn’t it?

Oh, sure, I’ll just release it as multi-part podcast.

I wouldn’t dare do that because it’s actually, the audiobook has been read far, far better, anyway. I actually, I recently distilled the sort of elevator pitch for the book, even though I don’t really believe in elevator pitches. But with the help of various people who’ve already reviewed it and commented about the book, the sort of simple summary is that it’s The Three Musketeers crossed with Joan of Arc, crossed with angelic magic, crossed with kick-ass woman heroes. And that kind of sums it up on a variety of levels. But, yeah, Angel Mage is very much inspired by Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and the Richard Lester 1973-1974 films of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.

I love those movies.

I love those movies, too. I mean, they’re brilliant movies and brilliant adaptations of the book. Very much inspired by that, but it’s not a retelling. Angel Mage is the story of Liliath, who is an angel mage. She’s able to summon angels using icons that she makes. And she, Liliath, is perhaps the most pre-eminent angelic mage who’s ever lived. Unfortunately, she has already destroyed one kingdom in an effort to do something, which is unclear, involving an archangel, the archangel of that kingdom. And this all happens before the book begins. She did something which caused a terrible plague that killed most people or turned them into monsters. She was thought to be killed by it as well, or something to have happened to her. But, in fact, she wasn’t. She just went into a long sleep to have another go. And the book is actually about her awakening from her long rest to try and put in motion once again and so successfully carry out whatever her plan is to get closer to her beloved Archangel Palleniel. And this is in the new kingdom of Sarance, which is pretty much an analog of 17th-century France, but with some important key differences. And to do so, Liliath needs to gather to her and direct four key individuals who are young people who are just embarking on their careers in the capital of Sarance, which is a sort of Paris equivalent. So, she is setting up her plan again. She is manipulating these four characters who are brought together. They don’t know why, you know, what their connection is. They feel a connection and they, Dorotea, who is also an angelic mage and a very gifted maker of icons, Simeon, who’s a medical student at the hospital, Henri, who’s a clerk of the cardinal–the cardinal is a woman, incidentally, and one of the, I guess the key differences in Sarance is that it’s an equal-opportunity kingdom, as such, as most of my fantasy worlds are. Women can be all the things that men can be as well, as of course they can be in reality if they’re not constrained by social barriers. And…who have I forgotten?…oh, and Agnez, who’s a musketeer, a cadet of the musketeers. And so it’s an adventure story, it’s set in that alternate 17th century, influenced by Dumas, and I hope it’s just a great, enjoyable adventure that really takes you to another world, as Worldshapers is all about. I hope it takes readers to somewhere that feels real and they can go along for the ride.

Most of your books, and this one included, are classified as young adult. What has drawn you to the young adult side of the spectrum?

Well, classifications are funny things. And in fact, Angel Mage is published as an adult fantasy in the UK and Australia.

Amazon shows it as young adult…

Well, in America it is published as young adult. It really, I guess, demonstrates the fluidity, particularly, of young adult as a category. I guess what I would say is that the clue is all there in the name “young adult.” It’s young adult, not all children. So, to my mind, you know, YA…and it’s confusing to people, because YA covers such a broad range of books from very young YA, as it were, to older books. And, you know, categories in publishing are about publishers trying to find the sweet spot to connect core readers to a book. They always hope that the book will go beyond those, that core group. And you always hope that that’s just the kindling that starts the fire to reach everywhere, as it does with the really big bestselling books. They always go far wider than whatever their categorization is. But, of course, to make that happen, you do need to connect with the people most likely to read the book. And that’s partly about genre classification as well, which is why if you try and categorize a book as something that it doesn’t really fit, which happens occasionally where publishers want to try and position a book somewhere else, but it doesn’t…you know, readers are put off from it because it doesn’t match their expectation. That’s probably the cardinal problem. (Cardinals on my mind, obviously, too many cardinals.) That’s the biggest mistake you can make in publishing, because if you try and sell a book as something t isn’t, you know, the people who would love it don’t buy it, and the people who you’re hoping to try and get to love it typically don’t buy it either. So the safe method is always trying to connect to a core audience.

And partly, of course, what happens is, if you’re known for a particular genre or category, if your book can even halfway fit into that category, that’s where publishers will try and put it. In the case of Angel Mage, I’m absolutely fine with calling it a young adult book. I do think it’s a young adult book, but at the same time, I think it’s important to be aware that doesn’t mean it isn’t for older adults as well. And, in fact, all the data shows that most of YA is in fact being read by 18-to-35-year-olds, anyway, and older. It’s not actually being read by teenagers, which is a whole other discussion, because there’s a whole discussion of how teenagers are actually being marginalized out of a genre that’s out of…not a genre, a category…which is meant to be for them. But, so, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem.

I just write the stories. I mean, going back to answer your question more directly, I just write. I write for myself, and I guess I write for myself as I am now and as I was at 20 or 15 or even a bit younger, where I would have read a book like Angel Mage with no problems whatsoever, in the same way I was reading completely adult titles with no problem whatsoever. But I also, I do write children’s fiction as well, and when I am writing the children’s books, I’m really writing for myself as I was at 10 or 11 or 12. But again, good children’s books work for all ages as well. And they work for all the readers, as well. It’s not the primary audience, but in my view, all the best children’s books will also work for an adult reader because they’ll be, there’s just more to them. There’ll be multiple layers of story and meaning which make them work, and a child reader who may not be as practiced or experienced will just take that top layer of story and meaning, and they will love it and be carried along by it. And later you can come back to it. They’ll come back to it later maybe and get some more of the subtext and more of the other layers of story. And an adult reader, a sophisticated adult reader, will, you know, we’ll get all of that straight away.

Getting the balance of all those things right is the difficult part, except that most writers, I think, do it by instinct. So I think if you start thinking about it, it won’t work. But if you’ve equipped yourself by reading, certainly, lots and lots of the right books, and by the right books, actually I just mean any books ,really, except that you probably should have read lots and lots of books in the area in which you want to work as well as everything else. Then you will have equipped your storytelling and writing instincts to be able to do that without having to think about it too greatly. And, of course, then the editorial process helps as well.

I’ve kind of run into the classification thing myself with the aforementioned Masks of Aygrima trilogy with a 15-year-old protagonist. It was published by DAW Books, which does not have a young adult line, and so it was published in the adult market. And I got people who said, well, you know, “This is really a young adult book.” And then there were young adult reviewers who said, “Well, this is too grown-up a book, but it has a 15-year-old protagonist. So, yeah, the whole genre classification thing, can…

And, well, it’s important not to get too hung up on it, I think. I mean, that’s…when people start thinking, “Oh, I can’t read this because it’s YA” or “I can’t read this because it’s adult” or “I’m not going to read this because it’s science fiction and all science fiction is terrible.” You know, those preconceptions just cut you off from reading good books. I think it’s very important to look at books on their own merits. The whole categorization, the labels that are put on books, are all about how to sell them. They’re not actually about what the qualities are, literary qualities or narrative qualities or whatever, they’re labels to help you find a book, but they are not exclusive labels. So I do think it’s very important for people to…reading about a book that sounds interesting, it probably is interesting. Have a look at it. Read some pages. Don’t think, “Oh, it sounds really interesting, but it’s YA, so it’s not for me, or “It’s children, so it’s not for me,” or “Dang, I didn’t realize it was romance, so I’m not going to read it,” because it could be absolutely the best book for you to read. It could be a wonderful book to read. Just because of some selling labels on it…I think preconception of genre and category just really narrows people’s reading habits, sometimes. Though, many people, of course, don’t care, which is good.

So, going back to Angel Mage, you talked about the elevator pitch, but that came after the fact. So, how did the original seed for this all come together? And is that typical of…the way that Angel Magecame together, is that typical of the way that your stories generally germinate?

That’s a good question. The way I typically develop stories is that I will have an idea for something. And often, it’s just about a character in a situation. And I really don’t know anything about it. I know, I have a…it’s like having a still cut out of a section of film. And I can look at it in my head and think, “Oh, well, there’s this person in this situation and this appears to be the setting,” but I really don’t know any more than that. And then I will start writing something about that. And often, these little fragments I don’t end up using, but that has helped me work out what the story is or what the story might be. And sometimes they become full-on prologues or opening chapters, which, again, I might not, but it does help me set the scene. And I work out, you know, who that character is and what part they play, and if they’re going to be the main character. And I also work out the feel of the setting, the sort of tone of the setting, even if I don’t know many details. And after I’ve written a little section like that, typically I don’t do anything on it for a while, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months. And my subconscious is working on it, and every now and again, I might make a few notes about that particular idea.

And if it is going to come to something, then at some point, the next thing I usually do is write an outline, which I won’t actually follow. That’s one of those Zen outlines, the act of doing the outline is more important than what it’s going to be used for. I will write an outline and then probably will write the beginning, which I may have already written, and I’ll just rewrite it, or it will be something completely different, but I will get that first chapter or prologue or prologue and first chapter down, and I will then revise the outline again. And at that point, I will have something which I will think, “Well, okay, that’s gonna be my next book, or is going to be the one I’m going to write after the one I’m writing now.” And that’s when I’ll share it with my agent and so on and start talking about it being the next book. And I should say, sometimes when I’m writing these, I begin this process where I have a little idea and I write a little bit, it becomes a short story and I will write it, and then, usually within a few weeks, it’ll be complete in itself. And then I know, “OK, well, that’s done. That is a story. It’s not going to be a novel, it’s not going to be anything else. And then I’ll try and do something with that story.

So, once you…if you decide to go on and write a novel…what does your actual writing process look like? Do you write, you know, 24 hours a day?

I wish!

Do you sit under a tree with parchment and quill? How does that work for you?

Well, I actually did…I wrote many of my early novels longhand first, so I would write a chapter in longhand, pen on paper, in my favorite black-and-red notebooks. So I’d write a chapter longhand and then I would type it up on various computers over the years and then I would print it out and I would correct the printout and take in those corrections to the electronic file, and then I would write the next chapter longhand and then just repeat the process. I stopped doing that probably about fifteen years ago, except that I still do write some sections longhand first. So, I still write difficult chapters.

What does writing longhand do for you or for your prose?

It just seemed to be a good process. I mean, I think I started it because, when I was traveling, and I first started writing when I was traveling, I could just write in my notebook wherever. And this is long before, you know, laptops or, actually, I mean, it was really the early days of personal computers. I mean, when I came back from that trip, I got a TRS-80.

Not portable!

Not portable, no, at all. I got my first Mac maybe the year often. And it was actually one of the very first Macs, the Mac 512K. It was…which was a miraculous thing. I mean, what you see is what you get on the screen. And printing out was astonishing compared to what I’d been using. But yes, not at all portable. So, I think it stemmed from that ability to write in a notebook wherever I was. And on that trip and then later on another trip 10 years later, in the early ‘90s, I mean, Sabriel, I wrote part of, I wrote chapters, you know, I wrote a chapter sitting on the wall of a Crusader castle in Syria, I wrote in a Roman amphitheater in Jordan, under a medieval bridge in Isfahan, in Iran, in the Khyber Pass, and so on. And so, being able to write anywhere, it was, I think, what drove that. I just got into the habit of it and it worked.

But I think also, writing longhand and then typing my longhand, and as I typed, I would correct, as well, did give me an extra layer of revision, which wasn’t just reading, a sort of tactile revision, not just looking at it on screen and going through. But that said, I always wrote short stories pretty much straight on screen, all my short fiction. And then later I did just start to write just, you know, on the computer. But I still write longhand. I still write notes longhand. And I will occasionally, particularly if I’m having difficulty, I will take my notebook and pen and go and write a chapter, often somewhere outside, somewhere in some sort of natural environment, not to sit at my desk. So I mix it up.

And once you get to the end of the book, the first time through, what does your revision process look like?

Well, I revise all the way through. Typically, what I do, in fact, is…say I’ve written Chapter 1. Before I write Chapter 2, I actually will revise…in my writing session, say I finish writing Chapter 1 on Monday, and I would have done minor revision at the time, just going backwards and forwards with every writing session, on Tuesday I will read Chapter 1, revise it and then write Chapter 2, and then when I come to write Chapter 3, I’ll revise Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 before writing Chapter 3. So I’m constantly revising all the way through. But of course, what that means is Chapter 1 will have been…say the book’s got 40 chapters. As part of my normal process, Chapter 1 will have been revised 40 times, by the time I get to the end of it, but Chapter 40 will have been revised, notionally, once, but in actual fact at least two or three times. And then, when I have a complete manuscript, I will go through it again, usually two or three times before it goes to the publisher, with a little bit, as much fallow time as possible between revisions, which in practice normally means only two or three days, because of, just, time constraints and needing to deliver it. But then, I also typically don’t look at it again until I get the edit back from, when I get the top-level edit letter back from my editor, I just won’t look at it at all. So, I’ll normally have at least a month or six weeks of having totally forgotten about it, with luck, before it comes back again.

And in that time, I’ll be writing other things. I’m always writing something. And I usually am writing a couple of short stories or sometimes a screenplay at the same time as writing the novel. The novel will take 80 percent of the time, but I will spend 20 percent of the time working on other projects, and then, once the novel is off my plate temporarily, I’ll be working on those other things and of course also starting the next one. So, it’s always…there’s always the shuffling, short-order-cook-type shuffling of things around on the stove.

Every once in a while, as a full-time freelancer, I remember the song from My Fair Lady, where Eliza sings, “Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words.”

Well, you do get sick of, absolutely, you occasionally do get sick of words, like Eliza. And then when that happens, it’s time to do something else for a while. Go for a walk, watch a movie, you know, anything that refills…or perhaps leeches the chamber of loathing for words.

What…you mentioned the editorial letter that comes back…what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to work on when the editor gets a look at them?

Well, it varies very much from book to book. I guess…I mean, I’ve always felt greatly complimented by editors who tell me that my books don’t need much revision. And they usually credit that to the fact that I do a lot of revision myself and I do pride myself on delivering a very clean and…you know, a manuscript that’s been revised as much as possible. So, it varies from book to book. Usually, they’re things like tightening up particular sections, which…you know, the pace may have dragged or, very occasionally…one famous editorial letter pointed out that I had a character who could be completely deleted from the book without making any difference whatsoever. And therefore should be. Which…and of course, as always, you know, your initial reaction is, “Oh, ridiculous nonsense. What are they talking about?” And then after calm reflection and looking at the examples cited, I realized that, yes, that character was, in fact, completely extraneous and did absolutely nothing. And so I did get rid of them, and the book was all the better for it. So, occasionally, there’s things like that, but generally speaking, they’re mostly fine-tuning things.

But not always. Again, this is going a long way back. I benefited greatly from the editorial advice from my then editor…at HarperCollins. Because I delivered Lirael and Abhorsen actually as one giant book. And that’s how I write it, as one very large book. And she pointed out that it probably needed to be two. And it wasn’t just a matter of cutting them, cutting it in half. I actually needed to expand upon some aspects of Lirael’s early life, which I’d alluded to without going into. And so, I took the book apart, I broke it in two, and I rewrote both halves, adding and subtracting. And so that was quite a big task. But it was the right advice. It was very, very useful. So, yeah, every now and again, there’s big things, and there’s small things.

I always like to talk about what the editors contribute because there are beginning writers or wannabe writers who are scared that editors will somehow destroy their precious prose or something. And in my experience, they almost always make it better. Almost always.

Almost always, because you can unfortunately get bad editors who just don’t understand the book or who want to remake it in, you know, remake it into something that it’s not. That does occasionally happen. But of course, you deal with that. And I’ve actually been very lucky. I’ve not had that really at all myself, ever. But I was an editor and I did…while I don’t think I’m guilty of doing this myself either, I did work with many other editors and I do know of…and I also, just from being in this business for a long time and knowing lots of other authors, I do know of a very few examples where just the wrong editor was working on a book with someone and it was not a good fit. But that, as you say, that is not the norm at all. Usually, a good editor is very helpful and makes a big difference.

Well, we’re close to the end of the time here, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions…

Well, I gotta go. Sorry. Time’s…oh, no, hit me. Hit me with a question.

It’s only one, really.

Oh, good. Okay.

With multiple parts, but…why do you write? Why do you write stories of the fantastic, specifically, and on a slightly broader level, why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories? Why do you tell stories and why does anybody tell stories?

That is quite a tough question. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? I think it’s because I have to, on one level, I’ve always told stories, I’ve always had them bubbling up inside me, and I feel like they need to come out, I guess. I did allude to this earlier when I said that possibly, if I didn’t write stories, I’d be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I do have all these stories in me and I have to get them out. Maybe this is how I make sense of the world, is by telling stories and by writing, or make sense of my world. But I do derive an enormous satisfaction when a story works out. I love it when I can successfully tell a story.

And I should say that never…nothing is ever as good as it is in my head. When I’m thinking up a story, it’s always truly amazing. And then when I write it, it goes from truly amazing to, if I’m lucky, kind of amazing. And I look at it and I think, “Wow, that’s great. I would like to read…if I came to this as a reader, I would like to read this. I would love this.” And that’s what I’m always trying to aim for. So I think it is that innate desire to tell stories just coming up inside me. Also, matched with that, the satisfaction of telling a good story and of making people…making people happy is perhaps not quite the right description, because, in fact, stories might not make people happy, they might make them feel all kinds of different things…but successfully transmitting a story from my head into a reader’s via the medium of text, I guess, is something that gives me great satisfaction.

As to why I write mostly fantastical stuff, that is also quite a tricky question. And possibly the best way to answer it is to say that, whenever I do try to write something that is contemporary and entirely realistic in terms of our contemporary world, it hardly ever works out. I mean, the story might work out perfectly well, but it will end up having some element of the fantastic, even a very slight one. It just seems to be something I do whether I plan to or not. I have set out to write entirely contemporary or historical stories and nearly always some element of the fantastic…I just suddenly get part of the way through, and I think, “This would be so much better if the supernatural intrudes or there’s magic,” or “Wouldn’t this be more interesting if that person is not, in fact, a human?” It just seems to be something, again, inside me that introduces these things. Though I have occasionally written things that do not have elements of the fantastic, my natural bent seems to be to want to include them.

And that sounds very familiar to me because that’s exactly what happens to me.

Yeah, I think it’s very…absolutely, I think it’s a, quite a shared trait of most fantasy writers. But not all, of course, everyone is different. There’s so many different ways to write, and write novels. And that’s also part of the fascination.

And the idea of having the amazing image in your head and then trying to get it…I’ve sometimes used the image of, it’s like you have a Christmas tree ornament and it’s beautiful and perfect and you can see it so clearly and then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words.

Yes. And they might still be very impressed, but it’s not quite what you wanted to give them. Yes. Yeah.

So, what are you working on now?

Well, I’ve actually just finished my next book, which is kind of ahead of schedule for me for once, which is good. I’m revising it in response to the editorial letter at the moment. And that book is called The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. It’s set in 1983, and it’s set in a slightly alternative London, London with a…a United Kingdom with a slightly different 20th-century history. And it’s about a young woman, Susan, who comes to London. She’s an art student who will be starting art school later, but she’s come early to London to try and find her father, who she doesn’t know anything about, she just has some clues from her mother to follow up—her very vague mother. And she almost instantly falls in with one of the left-handed booksellers, called Merlin, who saves her from…well, they save each other, actually…from an intrusion of the mythic. And Susan is drawn into this world where the left-handed booksellers and the right-handed booksellers have a kind of secret organization that not only runs a couple of bookshops, but also works to keep the mythic and legendary elements of Britain under control and stop them from intruding disastrously into the contemporary world. And Susan’s quest to discover her father is connected very much with Merlin. Merlin also has a quest, to try and find out what happened to his mother, who was apparently killed by criminals, but there seems to be some connection with the mythic world as well. So that’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, which will be out, hopefully, this time next year.

And anything else that you’re currently in process on?

I’ve got some short stories. I’ve actually got a bunch of stories coming out in different venues over the next twelve months. I had a quite a little short-story writing frenzy earlier this year. So I think I’ve got five stories coming out in various places over the next twelve months or so, which range from science fiction to fantasy, different kinds of fantasy…well, actually, one horror, one is just straight-out horror, which I don’t write that often, but every now and again…and some fantasy stories and science fiction. And I’m also outlining a new novel and notes for other stories. And I’m working on a screenplay with a friend of mine, as well, who’s a very experienced, and has had many things produced, screenwriter. So, lots and lots of things on that stove top, as I mentioned before, I’m shuffling those pans around.

And where can people find you online?

They can find me at garthnix.com, on Facebook, it’s just facebook/garthnix, and /garthnixauthor. I actually have my very old personal Facebook, which I always just use to connect with readers, but it’s generally full up with the 5,000-friend limit. And then later I started the author page, which is just the /garthinix one. So Facebook, I’m there, but actually where I’m most likely to respond to people, and I’m much more likely to post, in fact is Twitter, where I’m also just @GarthNix. And if you want to ask me a question, Twitter is generally the place where I’m most likely to be able to respond in a sort of timely fashion. Far more than that anywhere else already.

All right! Well, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Garth. I really appreciate it.

It’s fun to talk about writing, isn’t it? You know, writing and publishing.

Yeah. Well, that’s why I started the podcast.

Yeah. Very good.

Right. Well, bye for now!

Bye bye. Thank you.

Episode 37: Susan Forest

An hour long conversation with Susan Forest, award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy that has appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionAnalog Science Fiction and FactIntergalactic Medicine ShowBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others, and the new young-adult fantasy novel Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume series, Addicted to Heaven, from Laksa Media.

Website:
www.speculative-fiction.ca

Twitter:
@SusanJForest

Instagram:
@SusanForestWrites

Facebook:
@SusanForest

Susan Forest’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Susan Forest

Susan Forest’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionAnalog Science Fiction and FactIntergalactic Medicine ShowBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others. Her collection of short fiction, Immunity to Strange Tales, was published by Five Rivers Publishing, and her nonfiction has appeared in Legacy MagazineAlberta Views Magazine, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Blog. Her short stories, “Back,” “Turning It Off,” and “The Gift” were finalists for the Prix Aurora Award, and her novella, Lucy, won the Galaxy Project, juried by Robert Silverberg, David Drake, and Barry Malzburg. “For a Rich Man to Enter” is nominated for the Prix Aurora Award this year (2019).

Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume young-adult epic fantasy series, Addicted to Heaven, came out in August from Laksa Media, and will be followed by Flights of Marigolds in 2020.

Susan was the editor for Technicolor Ultra Mall (Edge), a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award in 2013. Strangers Among Us, and The Sum of Us, both of which she edited for Laksa Media, each won the Prix Aurora Award, in 2017 and 2018. The third in Laksa Media’s social issues anthology series, Shades Within Us, was released in 2018 and is nominated for the 2019 Prix Aurora Award.

Susan served two terms as Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (2015-2016). She has judged the Endeavor and Sunburst Awards, teaches creative writing in Calgary, and presents at international writing conventions several times each year.

Susan is also a painter and visual artist whose landscapes have been displayed as part of the Stampede Western Showcase in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome, Susan.

Hello, hello, hello.

Now, we’ve known each other for a few years.

Yes.

Because a science fiction convention in Calgary, which turned into When Words Collide in a roundabout sort of way, was what first started me going over to Calgary on a yearly basis. And I think probably the first time I went, I probably met you. And that’s been a long time ago now.

Probably. Yes, I remember.

Well, I always like to start these by taking guests…I usually say back into the mists of time, which is becoming almost a cliché on the show, but I’m going to say it anyway, because it fits…going back into the mists of time, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and how did you become interested in writing it? And you know, where did you grow up and all that kind of thing?

Yes. Well, I think the first books I really remember reading, like full novels, were Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series. My dad, actually, was a big fan…oh, way back in the ‘30s, when they were super popular, and he would go to second-hand bookstores and bring them back from my older brother to read, actually. And so we didn’t necessarily start with Tarzan of the Apes. We started with whatever second-hand book he could find at the store. So, my brother would read them and then he would pass them on to me. So, that’s a huge memory as far as reading is concerned.

But, yeah, I always thought of myself as a writer from the time I was quite small, I think I was in Grade 2, and I wrote a book called Jimmy, the Fish that Couldn’t Swim. That’s the first thing I remember writing. And then, when I was in Grade 7, I used to…I was a very studious person, and I would…I had a big binder with all my subjects in it, and when the teacher was finished teaching, they’d usually give us some time to do some homework. So, I’d sit at the back, I’d get my homework done, and then I had a novel at the back of my binder, and I would just open that up and just work away on that a little bit at a time. So that’s my earliest writing that I can think of.

And did that continue as you went on through high school?

Oh, yeah, yeah. No, I never did stop writing. That’s for sure. I don’t know that it’s something that I pursued professionally for a long time, but I always had a book that I was working on.

Did you share it when you were young readers? Did you share your writing? I always ask that because I think it’s a valuable thing for young writers to do, to let other people read it and get an idea if you’re telling stories that other people will enjoy reading.

Only to a very small degree, maybe a very few close friends. It’s kind of interesting, Even today, like if I’m…I like to go skiing, and I’ll be on the ski lift, and people say, “Oh, well, what do you do?” And I say, “I’m a writer.” And they say, “Oh, yeah, what have you published?”, all this sort of stuff. But they say, “What do you write?” I say, “Science fiction,” and it tends to stop the conversation.

Yes, it does.

Because people don’t have anything to relate to. So, yeah.

Well, and I, of course, live in Regina, Saskatchewan, as you know, but listeners may not necessarily, and our professional football team here is called the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which are the Riders for short. So half the time if I say I’m a writer, people will look at me funny. “Aren’t you a little old to be a football player?” “No, a writer, it’s a wri-TER. So, around here you have to really careful how you pronounce it.

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Well, was it science fiction and fantasy from the start, or were some of your early…well, I guess The Fish that Couldn’t Swim could be considered a fantasy.

I suppose. Yeah, you know I really did enjoy reading the horse stories. So Alec Ramsay, The Black Stallion, was huge, absolutely. I remember one time going to visit my cousin, though. She would read the Tarzan books and she said, “Guess what? Edgar Rice Burroughs also write science fiction. He writes John Carter of Mars!” So, of course, I got into that whole series. A little bit later, I was really interested in Ursula K. LeGuin, you know, the whole Earthsea series, Left Hand of Darkness, some of those books I really enjoyed reading. And I have a really strong memory of first getting involved with Tolkien. Again, it was my older brother who came up with this book, and we had one copy and everybody in our family was reading it, so you had to look right and left to see who had the book, right? And one time he just got so mad at me, he was going out and I knew he was gonna take the book with him, and I grabbed the book and I ran to the local school, the local junior high school that I attended. It had a courtyard that was almost three-quarters blocked off from the street. And I had the book and I was walking around in there and reading it. And he came along and he just glared at me, grabbed the book, and left. He never yelled at me or anything, but I knew I was big trouble.

So, when you got on through high school and university, did you study writing or what did you focus on?

Actually, my first…well, I’ve got a couple of university degrees, but they’re both in education. I was a teacher for many years. I was interested in taking creative writing, but it was quite difficult because the university tended to stream people. If you were in certain fields, there were courses that you couldn’t take in other fields. It was actually after I was teaching for a while that I was able to go back and take a course at the university with Aretha van Herk, it was just an introduction to creative writing. And the way I got into it was kind of funny because it was August, and I wanted to take a course in September, and I went and I got on the website and I signed up, and it looked like a great course to take. And I showed up at the first class, it was an evening course, it was on a Thursday night, and it was absolutely crammed with people. I don’t know, there were like 40 people in this room, which I thought was a little odd. And the teacher, the professor, came in, and she was angry. She said, “Half of you don’t belong here. We vetted the people who were going to come into this course way back in the spring, and the registrar let a whole pile bunch of people in. And there’s only allowed to be a maximum of 16 people in this class, so half of you don’t belong here.” But then she turned around and said, “However, if you have a chapter in your bottom drawer and you send it to me in the next day, I might let somebody in.” And guess what, I had a chapter in the bottom of the drawer. I didn’t know anything, so I went ahead and just sent it in, and she let me in. And I think of those extra 20 people, I was the only person that got into the course. So, yeah.

So, I often ask writers who have taken any sort of formal creative writing whether they ran into a pushback on the genre that they wish to write in. Were you writing something in the speculative fiction genre for that, that chapter that you sent in, or was it something else?

Oh, yes, absolutely. It was a fantasy novel. I always thought of myself as a fantasy novelist, especially before I knew myself better. But I did write a variety of different things while I was in that class, so I was using it as an opportunity to experiment. I learned a lot in that course. I know that…if I can brag just a little bit, I have a daughter who got her Ph.D. in creative writing, and yes, it certainly was her experience that writing in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she did experience that. And I have in other circumstances, as well. But I think the issue for me was I knew so little at that time that I was just a sponge. I was just soaking up every, every possible thing that I could get. I think I wound up with a C on that course, and I really think I deserved it. I think it might even have been generous, I don’t know. But I continued to learn from that course for like two years after I took it, just because I knew so little, and there was so much. And I would go back and I would revisit in my mind and experiment and try new things. So it was a really good course for me.

Well, as I’ve mentioned previously on the podcast, my degree was in journalism. So, I only took one creative writing course in university, and the name of our textbook was actually Three Genres, and I thought, “Oh, wow,” you know, “what is it? Like romance, mystery, and science fiction?” But no, it was plays, short stories, and poetry. And I don’t recall what I wrote for fiction for that—it must have been science fiction or fantasy, because that’s all I wrote, but the one thing I got the highest praise on from the teacher was actually a piece of poetry, which really startled me.

Whoa.

You know, just the fact that you’re writing…because I’d never thought of, you know, writing poetry, but I had to for the course, and it just…those classes and things like that do expose you  to different ideas and different writing. Even if they don’t like what you would like to write, you can often learn things from them, I think.

Oh, yeah, absolutely.

So when did you start seriously pursuing publication?

Well, way back, actually, a number of years ago, I…although I didn’t belong to any writers’ groups, I would, you know, worry away at my little project—I would work during the day and come home and write at night—and I belonged to the Writers Guild of Alberta. That was a…I mean, the result of that was simply I got a magazine once every three months or something like that. But I would look at the back, and there would be markets listed, and this particular time I was looking Gage Educational Publishing was looking for novels. So, I had a novel, so I sent it off, and that was my first published book. It’s something I don’t tend to talk about very much because I’m really amazed when I look back at that work right now and think, “They published that? Really?” It was really a two-edged sword because on the one hand I now had a published book, so that put me into a whole other category, for all kinds of things. Because it was a young adult book, I’d been working with the Young Writers Conference for a number of years here in Calgary, it meant that I could apply for grants, it meant that I could do all kinds of things because I had a book. The flip side of it is, it’s a terrible book. You know how they say editors do you a great favor when they don’t buy your book that isn’t ready? Yeah, no, that’s a really true thing. So, on the one hand, I’m really glad I got it published. On the other hand, I’m kind of embarrassed by it.

But that was your first one.

That was the first one.

When did the second publication come around, and was it short fiction? Because you started with short fiction before you went back to novels, didn’t you?

Yes, absolutely. Well, a number of things came together. For one thing, I did start to meet other writers, I belonged to writers’ groups—we actually met face to face and critiqued each other’s work—I took a number of workshops, so my writing was really growing. And one of the things that I decided to do was to try short fiction, as I said. I always thought of myself…my image of myself was as a fantasy novelist. So, I didn’t think I could write short fiction. I didn’t think I could write science fiction: all these limitations that I  placed on myself. But one of the things I discovered was that I was spending a lot of time at the beginning of long works and I was not learning, I guess, to write a full arc. And I thought, “Let’s work away with short stories and try to write a full arc.” And I would put them on the table for my critiques and they would say, “Yep, that’s Chapter 1 of another novel,” you know? So, definitely I had quite a learning curve as far as writing short stories was concerned, but I pursued and I persisted, and again…I know your mileage may vary and I know other people have found this does not necessarily work for them, but maybe it was because I just happened to belong to a very knowledgeable and supportive writers group, which…I’ll give them a little plug, it’s the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association of Calgary. Very large group. As long as you’re serious about writing, you can join it. You don’t have to be published. So, it goes from rank beginners right up to very well-published writers. Robert J. Sawyer is an honorary member. So, it was a really good place to learn a lot. And one of the things I learned was, when an editor is new to a publication or moves up within a publication to take a stronger editorial role, they may be trying to develop their own stable of authors. And I had a short story that I wanted to submit just about the time that Sheila Williams became editor for Asimov’s Magazine. She didn’t take the first story or even the second story that I submitted to her, but she did take the third story that I submitted to her. And so, that was my burst into what I would call really much more professional writing.

That’s one of the top markets in the field when it comes to short fiction, for sure, that one and Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be the big three. I mean, there’s a lot more stuff out there now.

Yeah, I’ve never got into F&SF. But my story about getting into Analog was kind of interesting. So, I mentioned that I went to a number of workshops and one of them was…the pro who ran it was Mike Resnick, and, oh, he was really tough on everybody around the table. One of the women, unfortunately…well, she did something that she probably shouldn’t have done. She took out an old trunk piece she hadn’t even looked at and put it on the table. And he kind of gave her a good tongue-lashing. He said. “You have 12 people around this table who have spent time and energy on your work and you didn’t care enough to give us your best.” So, he was pretty tough on us. But one of the things I remember was the absolute look of horror on his face when he looked around the table and he said, this is probably a direct quote, I remember it so well, “You all want to be professional writers and you don’t go to WorldCon?”, you know. So, one of the things that I did start doing was going to international conventions. And, you know, when you have friends like Robert J. Sawyer, who was able to make a few introductions, that really helped.

So, I met Stan from Analog, and I think making that connection maybe made a bit of a difference. But the other thing, too, was just, you know, talking to other writers, people would say, “If you want to get into Analog, try something short and funny.” So, I had sent something in that he called bleak. And then I sent in another one that was full of puns. And he really liked it. He said he laughed out loud, but it wasn’t a piece he thought that his readers would really think of as science fiction. And again, it was the third one that I sent in.

But, I’ll tell you a little story. I also go on a fairly regular basis to the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat in northwest Washington state. And I happened to be there one time, and just in a position to overhear the conversation between two editors, and one of them was saying to the other, “Do you know such and such a writer? Hs she submitted to your magazine?” And the other one said, “Yeah, yeah, she’s pretty good. Have you published anything by her?” “No, no, not yet.” “Well, have you heard anything about her recently?” “No, I haven’t heard anything.” I wonder if she stopped one sale, one story short of a sale. And, you know, it just really struck me that people in the business do know one another and are aware and in some ways, I think, are encouraging new writers…I mean, they have to have the best of the best for their publications…but that that they’re aware and are encouraging. At least, that’s been my experience anyway.

So you would recommend to new writers that they make an effort to get to these conventions and things like that, it sounds like?

Yes. I think…

I mean, it’s a lot of money to go to an international convention.

Oh, it certainly is. And I certainly have to watch which ones I’m able to go to. But, again, Rob Sawyer said something that kind of stuck with me a number of years ago. He said, “Always put your stories into the top markets first. If it gets rejected from there, there are the mid-tier markets and so forth that you can still try.” And his reasoning for this was, he said, “In your mind, you need to think of yourself as at that level,” right? If you think of yourself at that level, then you will write to that level and you will be at that level, which kind of makes sense. So I think the same thing with going to the conventions…by the fact that you attend—you can learn a lot from one thing, you can also meet people, which is helpful—but also, you see yourself at that level. I am a professional. This is what I do.

Well, certainly since those early sales, you’ve racked up a considerable number of short fiction sales. But now we’re going to talk about your novel, which is starting a pretty ambitious project, a seven-volume epic fantasy series.

Yes.

So this…and this still goes back to the short fiction, as well. I mean, I know it’s a cliché, in these sorts of things, to ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” But it is a valid question. I know, ideas are everywhere, but at the same time we all have little things that tend to spark them in us, and spark story ideas. So, first of all…well, first of all, before we do that, let’s get a brief synopsis of Bursts of Fire, the first book. Without spoilers, because I’m only about halfway through it.

Okay. Well, Bursts of Fire, the first book, it’s the story of three sisters. Meg is the eldest…she’s 17 and she’s essentially the protagonist, but the other two sisters are very important as well…they are magic wielders. But they are very highly placed. They’re like princesses. They’ve grown up in a castle, with all of the benefits of that and very little life experience. Their mother is the magic wielder for the king, who has the second-most powerful prayer stone in this fantasy world. Their mother sees a glimpse of the future and she sees that war is coming. She wants to save her daughters. She also wants to save this magical prayer stone, and she wants to save the balance of the world, which is quite healthy at this point. So, yes, their castle is attacked, right away in Chapter 1, and the mother, because she has this bit of premonition, she is able to help her daughters flee. And so, the three daughters flee with their nurse, who is killed almost immediately, and the three sisters are in this world as refugees alone. You were going to say something?

I was going to say I knew the nurse was doomed because you have to get your young protagonists on their own as quickly as possible.

Yeah, exactly. So, they meet…of course, now when something huge like this happens in a world, things don’t stay static. You have people who are going to rise up and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We want to do something about it.” And so, a very nascent rebel group starts to form and the sisters get involved with that. So that’s how the story begins now.

Now, I can go back to the question, what was the seed for this story? Where did that seed come from for you? And is it typical of the way that you come up with story ideas?

You know, it’s been a very interesting process to work on this series, because…I think I heard somebody say this very recently, but I think it’s quite true, that fantasy in particular, I think it tends to take itself very seriously, and a lot of the writing that I had been doing in the fantasy genre, I think, really, I was feeling, “Oh, this is this is dark and getting darker,” and I have a very strong memory. I can’t place the memory in time, but a very strong memory of camping and being in a tent in the morning, waking up, it was so beautiful, it was warm in the tent, the sun was shining through, and just thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what I really want to do is, I want to write a heist romp. I want to do something light, something, just, you know, with maybe even some comic moments and what have you.” And that is actually where the idea came from. I think I had an image of a young female thief climbing up the outside of a castle tower, was kind of the image that I think this whole thing sprang from. And it does happen later in the series. It’s still there. But when I was when I was a teacher, one of the experiences that I was very fortunate to have was to take up a course that was called mini-counselling. It was, like, a three-day course in counselling, because teachers do have to counsel students all the time. And one of the gems that came out of that was, as a counselor, it’s not necessary to talk to a client and say, you know, “What is your deepest, darkest secret that you fear?” You can start anywhere, because whatever is bothering somebody is going to come out in its own good time. And I think that is also true in the writing process, that the themes and the ideas that you yourself are wrestling with may be very sub…you know, you’re not aware of them, they’re in your subconscious, but they’re going to come out in your themes and in your writing anyway. And so, yeah, I wanted to write a really lighthearted heist romp, but no…

I can’t say that’s the way it’s coming out.

No, the book gets into a whole lot of deeper issues because that’s just what’s bubbling up out of my subconscious.

So is that sort of seeing an image, is that a fairly typical way for you to latch on to a story idea? Just something in your mind that’s, “Oh, that would be cool!”

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of visualization, for sure, that happens in the early stages of my writing. Yeah, absolutely.

So, as you begin to develop this, what does your…I mean, there’s quite a bit of…a fairly complicated magical thing going on here.

Yes.

And something…I don’t believe I’ve read anything quite like it before. So, was there are a lot of worldbuilding before you even begin plotting, or how did all that planning and synopsizing work for you?

Yeah. Well, I need a lot of people who are pantsers, and I understand that there’s some great advantages to writing by the seat of your pants. A friend of mine once said, “You know, when I’m writing by the seat of my pants, I can surprise myself. And if I can surprise myself, I can surprise the reader.” And, you know, surprise is a wonderful thing to be able to have in your stories, for sure. But I have never been a pantser. I’ve always plotted my stories, right from the very beginning. However, my process is a bit more complex than that, because I do tend to go back and forth in the initial stages between just writing scenes and planning and then writing some more scenes and planning. And I think it’s because I really don’t know enough about my world and I don’t know enough about my characters until I see them in action. So, I have to write some chapters or some scenes before I can really get deep into the planning. On the other hand, I don’t get too deep into the book before I do create a complete of…quite a detailed outline.

And do you follow that outline as you write or does it wander off occasionally?

I tend to follow it fairly closely in the broad strokes. Having said that, you know what? If your story is telling you you need to do something, you need to listen to that because, you know, that’s where the surprise comes from. I remember one time very clearly writing along, and I had two conmen—this was in the same series, it’s a little later on…and one of them said, “All we need is a miracle.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” And then I thought, “OK, now I have to come up with a miracle.” But, you know, as a writer, you have time, because…if you are a performing artist, as you know, because you’re a performing artist, when you’re on stage doing something, whatever comes out of your mouth, well, it’s out of your mouth, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, right? As a writer, we do have that to a degree. I mean, eventually there are deadlines, but to a degree, we have the opportunity to go back and rewrite. And if you need a miracle, you can do some research and you can come up with a miracle.

Well, how did you come up with the idea for this particular magic system? Maybe you should explain a little bit about what the magic is like in this book.

This…I’m really enjoying working with this magic system because it’s giving me so many tools to do so much in the books that I really enjoy. For your listeners, I’m sure they’re quite aware that magic systems always have to have a cost. And so, it’s important that the magic system does not allow your magic wielder to just do anything in the world. There have to be limitations. The magic is based on the manipulation of time. So, the people who have this ability can hold an object still in time, so it doesn’t move as the timestream moves around it, or they can take it back in time, or they can take it forward in time. But usually, just a very small object, maybe, I dunno, something the size of a pea is about all they can do. So, they can’t just take the entire world and stop it in time.

But also, let me just give an example, which is right away in the early part of the book, these three girls are trying to escape the city. The gate is locked. They’re able to find a time when that lock was open, and then they walk through the gate. So, it works in these very small ways. The cost of the magic is that once you have used magic, you have disturbed the timestream, and that therefore you live bits and pieces of your own life out of order. There’s no way of knowing how that’s going to happen. It’s quite random. You may suddenly find yourself at a time in your past, but only for a few seconds. Or you may find yourself at a time in your future, but again, only for a few seconds. And that is really important, because take, for instance, the fact that the three girls mother knows something bad is gonna happen, but she doesn’t know what, she doesn’t know when. So, she’s preparing for her girls to get out of the city, but the bad thing happens before the preparations are complete because she doesn’t know when. So it allows for a little bit more adventure, a little bit more, you know, surprise.

One of the things that you sometimes find in fantasy novels that I find quite irritating is the prophecy. Prophecies are very problematic. Either the prophecy is right, in which case it’s kind of boring because you’ve got the prophecy and then you get the adventure, and they’re the same, so there’s no surprise, or the prophecy is wrong, in which case it wasn’t a very good prophecy. So, people tend to write prophecies in very cryptic language that could be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways, which in my mind…I just find it kind of irritating.

It’s like, if you’re a prophet, why can’t you be clear?

Yeah, exactly. So, the advantage to this is that we can see bits and pieces of the future, just not enough to tell what the whole story is. So, you can get that foreshadowing, you can you can get the tool to use to help you to a degree, but without giving away the whole story.

So, once you actually start writing, what does your writing process look? Like, do you write longhand on a parchment out under the stars? How does it work for you?

Does anybody really? Maybe some people do. No, I’m very much…I think through my fingers. In fact, sometimes, you know, I might be helping somebody with something else, and I’ll say, “Just let me write this,” and then I’ll know what I want to say and then tell it to them. You know, I can really think through my fingers on the keyboard. I do tend to be a…I’ve planned it, I’m going to start with scene one, chapter one, and work my way through. But recently, I have been experimenting a little bit more with quilting. So, you’ve heard of writing by the seat of your pants or pantsing, planning, and then quilting is where you write a theme or chapter, and it could fit anywhere in the book or it may not be in the book at all. And then you string your quilted scenes together with the other scenes that you require. And I have been experimenting with that a little bit for a couple of reasons. One is, I love to ride on the back of my husband’s motorcycle, and especially on the winding, twisty roads, it’s like riding a roller coaster. It’s tons of fun. But, you know, not all riding on the motorcycle is hills and curves. Some of it is straight boring highway for hours at a stretch. And we don’t have the means to talk to each other in our helmets, so what I do is, I get a tape recorder and I’ve got a lovely little tiny microphone that I can stuff inside my helmet, and of course have to stuff a lot of padding in there so I don’t get any road noise, and I can write all usually about four scenes in a day of motorcycle riding, which is about 4,000 words. And you know what? If you go on a 10-day motorcycle trip, you can get a chunk of your book done that way.

Well, you’re the first person I’ve talked to that writes on the back of a motorcycle. That’s a new one.

So, what I do is, I know what’s in the scene because I made the plan, I write a little point-form note that maybe has three or four things that I want to occur in this scene, and then I dictate the scene. When I get…you know, if we stay in a hotel, usually by the end of the day, my husband’s really tired because he did all the work, so he’ll have a nap, and then I can get out the tape recorder and I transcribe onto my iPad—you have to carry very small equipment on a motorcycle—and then, I usually just transcribe and I need to do it right away, because sometimes, you know, with the road noise, it’s  hard to get some of the words.

I was going to ask you about that, yeah.

There’s no way I would ever try to use Dragon on a motorcycle ‘cause I would get complete gobbledygook. So, I transcribe it right away and maybe do a little bit of editing at that point. But because of this method, I need to be very clear in my mind about the scene that I’m doing. So I pick, like, the best scenes. I pick the most active ones, or the ones with the greatest interpersonal conflict, or the ones that are clearest in my mind, which means that the ones that are still a bit fuzzy in my head, those are the ones that I really need to have that focus and concentration to do my initial drafts.

Well, once you got this all assembled, and you have your first draft, what is your revision process look like? Do you go back to the very beginning and rewrite the whole thing? Or, by the time, you get to the end, have you sort of rewritten as you go along and it’s pretty much done.

Lots of times, there are going to be problems somewhere in the book. Usually multiple places in the book. So, my first go to is going to probably just be a complete read-through to see, “How is this whole thing hanging together?” And you know, the low-hanging fruit, capturing those things that are really obvious. I do a number of edits. I’m not…I think I do actually a fairly clean first draft, but…like, something that I’m dictating, for instance, is not gonna be a very clean first draft. It’s going to be…have all kinds of problems with it. So I revise, revise, revise, revise. And I’m looking for story arcs, I’m looking for character arcs, I’m looking for interweaving the worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is so important because it’s way more than just the physical description, right? It’s the technological development, it’s the social development, the attitudes of people toward everything that’s going on, that you never have—and this is a truism—an entire group that thinks the same way, there are going to be people who disagree within a group. So, ensuring that that layering in that complexity is in? And then, finally, of course, you do have to look at the words and the sentences and making it the best it can be.

And this is where I wanted to talk about your editing career. Because you…how did you get started editing other people, and how does your experience as an editor play into editing your own stuff?

Oh, it has been absolutely amazing. It is one of the best things that I ever could have done. I had…oh, I’m guessing, 20 years of critiquing other people’s works, because I’ve belonged to a couple of…three or four…different critique groups at different times. So, I got lots of practice with that. Between giving critiques and receiving critiques, you learn a lot, and you learn so much by critiquing other people’s work. Lots of times what you do yourself, the mistakes you make yourself, you can’t see them until you see them in somebody else’s work. So that was a, I think, a really solid basis. And then, when I stopped teaching, I was actually approached by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing to edit for them. So, I edited, in total, three novels for them, one of which was nominated for the Prix Aurora Award, so I was really happy about that. And then, I also became a freelance editor as well. And then, when was it, I guess four or five years ago, when Laksa Media first got started, again, I was invited to edit for them. And that was a bit of a daunting experience  because…I remember being at World Fantasy Convention one year and sitting with a bunch of editors at a table at various stages and saying, “I’m starting on this new project, the publisher has invited some really high-level authors, and it’s just making me a bit nervous.” And the advice I got back was, “The bigger the author, the more professional and the easier they are to work with.” And, you know, that was absolutely true. I have to say, I can remember one particular story I edited where the author was really busy with a deadline, and so we got the story a little bit late. And I went through it and I thought, “Oh, this is a really good story, but it’s got a couple of plot holes.” And I really didn’t want to write the letter saying, “Can you fix this and this?” But I did. And the author got back to me and said, “I’ve done all the things you wanted. Have a look.” I looked at it. Not only had this author done all the things I wanted, but way more. And it was an amazing story and I felt so good about it. But the best part was I ran into that author at a convention later, who said to me that that really appreciated my editing. And, oh, I was thrilled.

Well, it’s something that, and, you know, I do a lot of editing, too, and I find the same thing, that editing other people’s stuff and mentoring other writers and all that stuff that I do feeds right back into my own writing, and I start to see things that maybe I wouldn’t see if it weren’t for the fact that I’m seeing it in other people’s stuff.

Oh, absolutely.

I think it is very useful. Well, OK, so now you’ve done your revisions. You’re actually an editor at Laksa Media, but presumably you’re not your own editor.

No, no, no. It’s unfortunate that it’s…it’s a little bit incestuous that way. I did start working as an editor with Laksa Media first, but I did have this novel that I was working on. And Lucas Law…for people who don’t know, Laksa Media is very small. So, it was Lucas law. And he said to me, “I’m interested in your novel, and can we talk about it?” We talked about it, actually, for at least a full year, probably closer to a year and a half, before we finally said, “Yeah, this novel would fit with Laksa Media.” And here’s something that I found really interesting. I found Lucas to be an excellent editor for my work, but one of the things he said early on that was really huge was he said, “I enjoy your story. I think you’ve got something here that we can work with, but Laksa Media has its niche. It is into social causes.” So, the first anthology they put out, Strangers Among Us, was about mental health and mental illness. The second one, The Sum of Us, was about caregivers and caregiving. The third one was about migrations, Shades Within Us. And so, he said, “What is the social cause that your book is really dealing with?” And it was interesting, because that was not something I had thought about up until that point. But, as you say, you know, what you’re wrestling with in your subconscious comes out, and I just took one look at him and I said, “Addictions.” That’s exactly what it’s dealing with. And as soon as he asked me that question, I knew the answer.

Now, having said that, sometimes thematic threads that are nascent that are in the book, but kind of bubbling under the surface, then you want to go back with your edit and say, “Okay, how am I developing this? What is it that I have to say and how is it coming through?” So, for instance, as you mentioned earlier, this is a seven-book series, and the topic of addictions is absolutely huge, which is a wonderful, wonderful way that these things work together, because Bursts of Fire is dealing…exactly like the title says. It’s first tastes. It’s a YA take on a novel. The girls are 17, 16 and 11, and they are out in this world where they have never seen or heard any of the stuff that’s going on around them. So, they get first taste of all kinds of different things, including spells that are…in our world the analogue would be like drugs…that give them all sorts of mystical experiences, as well as, you know, healing spells and curses and all of these sorts of things. So, they’re getting first tastes of alcohol, first case of love, all of these bursts of fire that are happening around them. So, that’s book one. Book two deals with interdependence…codependents, that’s what I’m trying to say. Codependents and enabling. Book three deals with the social conditions that may underlie why certain groups may become more at risk for addictions than other groups. One of the later books deals with Prohibition. You know, there’s issues of recovery and relapse. There’s seven books. You can you can really dig your teeth into a whole lot of different aspects of the theme.

Should probably say, though, that although those are the themes, it’s still a heck of an adventure story.

Yes, that’s primary. And that’s really important, because nobody wants to read a book that’s a) a downer. “Oh, my goodness, addictions, da-da-duh-da,” right? But b) you know, hitting you over the head with, “You should do this or you should do that,” or, you know, whatever. So, it is the thematic content, but there…it’s an epic saga. It is…it’s dealing with war and sword sorcery and magic and, you know, the fantasy.

How detailed is your plot for the entire series? Do you have, like, the future books get sort of a paragraph and you’ll figure that out later as you get there, or is it all figured out to great detail already?

Book two was submitted, so it’s completely written. Book three is completely plotted out and I’d say 85 to 90 percent written. I know it doesn’t come out until 2021, but it’s really nice to be ahead of the curve. The other thing is, by working further into the books, down the series, that makes sure that I can have the proper seeds planted in the earlier books. Books four, five and six, all have some writing in them. All are relatively plotted out, but in broad strokes—more than a paragraph, but still fairly broad strokes—and book seven is planned, and I know how the series ends, it’s definitely ending with book seven, but I haven’t done any of the writing on book seven yet.

Well, we’re getting close to our time being up—not that there’s exactly a firm deadline on these things. It’s not like it’s a live radio show—but this is the point where I ask the big philosophical questions, or question, which is basically, why do you write, first of all, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy, second of all, specifically. And I guess, why do you think any of us write this crazy stuff?

I think that there is a lot to be said for…you know, my initial idea, the fantasy heist romp, you know, just the fun book. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. But I don’t think we ever even write a very light book without some of that thematic stuff percolating away underneath. I think it always happens even if we’re not in control of it. But more important, I think all art is a type of leadership within our culture and within our society. If you look at politics, for instance, political leaders in a democracy need to satisfy the masses or they’re not going to get re-elected, right? The masses, on the other hand, feel kind of powerless because they’ll say, “Well, the leaders are deciding everything.” So I think you’ve got this kind of loop going back and forth between the electorate and the politicians. But where does change come from? It comes from the discourse. The major discourse will determine what both groups are going to pursue. And it is the artist who can influence the discourse. It is the artist who brings up new ideas, who brings up arguments, of ways of thinking, and gets people talking.

And I’ll give you an example of this. I think that for many, many, many years…okay, I’m in Alberta, right? Oh, my goodness. we love our oil in Alberta. If there’s going to be any kind of a development project, oh, yeah, maybe there are some hoops to jump through, but it’s going to go through. You know it’s gonna go through, right? In recent years, the assurance of that has been wavering. It’s not necessarily for sure anymore that these big mega-dams are going to go through. And it’s because the discourse is changing. It’s because other voices are coming forward and saying, “Hey, you know, we need to pay attention to climate change. We need to pay attention to the farmland that’s gonna be flooded by that dam.” And those voices are coming forward, and now the major discourse is starting to shift. So, our voices coming forward…and I think artists are a key component of that.

I guess that kind of answers the other question I often ask, which is, because this program is called The Worldshapers, if you think…I mean, shaping the world is perhaps a bit grand, but if you are at least shaping the way that individuals think about things in your writing, and is that something you hope you are accomplishing, that you hope that you’re having some impact on the way individuals think about the world and everything. Life, the universe, and everything.

Life, the universe, and everything. Yes, absolutely. I think that is the purpose and function of art, and as writers, we are artists, and I think it’s important to be aware of and in control, as much as we can, of the thematic elements that we’re putting forward. But at the same time, the story is primary. I mean, you may have ideas that you need, that you want to bring forward, but, yeah, that is always the under-layer, that is always something that just percolates up. It’s story that has to be first and foremost.

And you’ve said something about things percolating up, whether you know they’re there or not. And there is a story…I’ve told it before, but I always like to, that Isaac Asimov put in his Opus 100, I think, one of his autobiographical books, how he had gone to a university class in science fiction at some university—it would been in New York since he barely traveled—and he heard the professor talking about his story “Nightfall.” And he sat at the back and he listened to him going on about it, then at the end, he went up the professor and he said, “That was a very interesting class, but, you know, I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you, but just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it?”

You know what? I had heard that story, but I did not realize it was Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.”

Yeah, definitely “Nightfall,” and I think it’s in Opus 100.

Yeah. Oh, I learned something new. That’s cool.

So, what are you working on next? I think I know the answer to that—it’s probably the next book in this series—but are there  other things as well?

Yes. Absolutely. Actually I’m really excited about a book project that I’ve got on the go. One reason I’m kind of glad to be already at book three in this series is because I think, over the winter, if there’s not too many edits, I’ve got still a year and a half before it’s due, I’m working on one that is a World War Two fantasy, and it’s kind of a mystery thriller as well. The magical element is a character who can step outside of his body for brief periods to see and hear things without being seen and heard. So he would make a great spy, right? Except that he’s had some bad experiences and he is in hiding. He’s living on a small farm in rural Alberta. And I’m doing tons of research on rural Alberta in the 1940s, it’s really interesting. The book is actually from his wife’s point of view, and he gets kidnapped and she does not know where he’s gone. So, it is her journey to find and rescue her husband, it does take her over to Europe, but also to find and learn about magic. And it also deals with disabilities and mental illness. Now, I don’t have a publisher for this book. It’s not even written. But I’m really excited about working on it.

Are you still writing short fiction?

You know what? I wish I was. I have, like, one short fiction story that is out circulating right now, and I really should be doing more short fiction. But yeah, no, I’m just so busy with so many other things, I have not been getting to it this year. Maybe it’ll come up in the winter. Maybe I’ll get something done this winter.

And you’re still doing freelance editing as well?

Yes. Yeah. All of the above. And teaching at the Alexandra Writers Center.

So, one or two things going on.

Yeah. Keeps me busy.

So, where can people find you online?

Well, my website is called speculative-fiction.ca.

Yeah. How’d you get that?

Oh, yeah, I was very lucky. And then, let’s see, I’m on Instagram, @SusanForestWrites, I’m on Twitter @SusanJForest, and Facebook @SusanForest, and, oh, can I just mention, we just put out a wonderful video to support the first book, Bursts of Fire, and it’s on YouTube, just look up Susan Forest, and you’ll find me there. 

All right. Good stuff. And so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

Thank you

And I’m sure I’ll see you in…probably in Calgary at When Words Collide next year, if not before.

Yep. And I’m going to see you in Ottawa this fall.

Oh, you’re gonna be a Can*Con for the Auroras, so I’ll see you there. Because, of course, this podcast is also nominated for an Aurora this year.

Yeah, good luck.

Yeah. Looking forward to that. And my editor, Sheila Gilbert from DAW Books, will be there again this year. So that’ll be great as well. All right, so I’ll let you go now. Thanks again for being a guest.

Thank you.

Episode 36: Tim Pratt

An hour-long conversation with Tim Pratt, author of more than twenty novels (most recently the Axiom space-opera series, Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and The Forbidden Stars), a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards.

Website:
timpratt.org

Twitter:
@TimPratt

Tim Pratt’s Patreon page

Tim Pratt’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of more than twenty novels: most recently, the Axiom space-opera series, including Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and the forthcoming third volume, The Forbidden Stars, out this month (October 8, two days after this episode released. – Ed.). He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. His collection, Miracles and Marvels, is also coming in November…or, coming in November. Not also, because The Forbidden Stars is out in October, it’s coming after that. He tweets incessantly (he says) as @TimPratt and publishes a new story every month for patrons at patreon.com/timpratt.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Tim.

Hi, Ed, thanks so much for having me.

Could’ve sworn it said November for The Forbidden Stars. Anyway…

I probably told you the wrong date. Like most authors, I have only the vaguest idea of when anything is coming out. I think last year it came out…the second book came out in September, the first one might have come out in November. That’s probably what happened.

Close enough, anyway. Yeah, and I just finished reading the first two, so I’m looking forward to talking to you about them. Usually at this point in the podcast, I will talk about how we met at some convention or other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever met at a convention. I might have seen you at a WorldCon or World Fantasy, but I can’t say for sure that we’ve ever actually spoken. So, this is a new one.

Yeah. Nice to meet you. I used to go to a lot of conventions, and then I had a child about twelve years ago and have only in the last couple of years kind of gotten back into getting back into the convention scene. But there was a long stretch there where I only went if it was, you know, twenty minutes from my house.

Which most of them aren’t.

Well, you know, I’m in the Bay Area, so it’s not absolutely none, but yeah, it’s not that many.

Well, we’re gonna talk about the Axiom series in particular as an example of your creative process, but before we do that, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time, which you’re getting further back for some of us than others. I say that having just had a 60th birthday not that long ago…

Oh, happy birthday.

…and find out how you first became interested in, first of all, in science fiction fantasy, and how you became interested in writing the same.

Oh, absolutely. Really, my parents were just really big readers. I grew up fairly poor, travelled around a lot with my mom. She was a single mom for the first six years of my life and we lived all over the south and kind of had no fixed address. We stayed with relatives or we spent some time in West Virginia, Texas, wherever. But she was always a science fiction fan, so those books were around. When I was about six, she married my stepdad and we settled down in North Carolina. And, you know, my dad’s a welder and my mom for a long time was, you know, just worked the cash register in a store, although later she became a paramedic when I was in high school. And so, not sort of the classic literary upbringing. There was no beautiful library full of volumes, but what they would do is whenever they were at the thrift store they would pick up all the cheap paperbacks, right, and they would bring them home. So, there are always millions of books in my house, and the majority of them were science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So that was just early exposure. You know, by the time I was eight years old, I was reading Stephen King novels, not entirely understanding everything that was happening in them, but I was reading them.

And then, in summers, I would stay with my great-grandmother, Annie, who would watch me while my parents were working. And she was a huge science fiction novel fan. And she was like, she didn’t mess around with fantasy, she didn’t mess around with horror. She was a Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov science-fiction fan, and her guestroom was just full of shelves and just full of hundreds of books. And so in the summer, you know, I would like to eat ice cream and watch TV, but she would be like, “No, you can’t watch TV all day. Go weed the garden and, you know, and you can read.” And so I’d read her books. And that, I mean, honestly, that was my education and my grounding in science fiction.

Not a bad one.

Really, no.

So when did you become interested in writing it, or writing in general?

The oldest story that my mom still has in the shoebox is from when I was in second grade, so before I remember not being into writing, right, I don’t have a memory of not being interested in it. You know, kids play around with all the arts, right? I wanted to be a visual artist. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a chef. All these things. Honestly, I think writing stuck because writing had the lowest barrier to entry. You know, if I wanted to play music, well, I had to get a guitar from somewhere, right? If I wanted to be an artist. I needed to get art supplies. If I wanted to write. I just needed a spiral-bound notebook and a pencil. I had that anyway to go to school. So that’s sort of the artistic endeavor that I just started and kept at. My learning curve was incredibly slow because I didn’t sell any fiction until I was in my twenties, but I was working at it.

So, did you write, as you went through school, were you writing a lot of stories? And were you sharing them with friends to see what they thought or anything like that?

I did. Yeah, I was collaborating with a friend in fourth grade. I actually just recently was digging through some old files and found something. I was like, “Oh, yeah, we wrote this thing together.” When I was in high school, once I was in typing class–not keyboarding class, we had, they were electric, but we had typewriters–I started making just a little satirical like joke-filled newspaper thing for my friends that I would just type there and it would end up getting sort of circulated around–I mean, one copy at a time, but it would get passed around the school. I was always writing and in high school I was sort of, I was known as the writer. I have no idea why, I’d published on a couple of like, you know, school literary magazines or whatever. But somehow, like, my senior year, I was voted “most talented.” I’m like, “How? Why? Like, it should go to someone who’s like playing in a band or like doing art that’s hanging in the halls, at least. Like, how does anybody know I do anything?” But I guess I never shut up about it. so people knew that I was doing it.

Did you write make longer stuff, like novels, or you sort of on the shorter side during all of that time?

Most of that time I was writing short stories. I really love short stories. I did take a couple of stabs at longer things and probably in high school produced some novella-length stuff that wasn’t very good. It was college before I really settled down and thought, “You know, I’d like to sort of figure out how to do novels now.” And I wrote a few of those through college and I went to Clarion right after college and after Clarion…so, at Clarion they warn you, “You know, you’ve been here, you’ve been so intense, you’ve been so focused, a lot of people, they come out declaring they’re just blocked. They’re, like, too hypercritical of their work, they can’t produce anything just because they freeze up about everything they’re doing wrong.”

It sounds like telling people that would be a good way to make that happen.

Right. Yeah, let’s plant the seed of fear. But, so I sort of thought, well, I’m not gonna let that happen. So I came back from Clarion and I did a novel there, which was…there were a bunch of people online who would do, like, dare each other to write a novel in thirty days. So, sort of NaNoWriMo-ish, except usually longer, like an eighty-, ninety-, hundred-thousand-word novel that you would try to write in thirty days, and sort of just boost each other up online. And so, I did one of those, like, immediately after clearing. And that book was also terrible, but the book I wrote after that, I sold.

Well, it’s that old thing, and it’s attributed to various people–somebody told me Ray Bradbury said you had write 800,000 words and Stephen King said you only had to write 500,000. So it’s getting better, you know, as you go along.

That’s right. Yeah.

You’re talking about writing a novella-length…I had thought I had written novels in high school because they were typed up and they made a substantial stack of paper. But recently, I scanned the first one I wrote, when I was fourteen, which I typed up as soon as I had my–and it was on a typewriter–my typing classes. And, you know, I thought it was long, but when I scanned it and did a word count, it’s like 38,000 words.

That’s close.

Pretty close, but it wasn’t really a novel. But still, it looks like one. So… I’m thinking about putting it out online under my…I was known as Eddie Willett when I was a kid…putting it out under my Eddie Willett byline on Amazon. My worry is it might sell better than my other stuff.

You know, it’s a fear. I took the first novel that I finished, that I wrote when I was probably a sophomore in college…and it’s not very good, it’s sort of contemporary fantasy thing…and I do a Patreon where I read a new story every month, I’ve been doing it for years, and I do bonus material sometime, and usually it’s like trunk stories or fragments or audio, just, like, weird stuff. But I was like, “You know, I have this novel. I’m just going to resist the urge to clean it up. Really. I’ll go through it and make sure there’s not anything too, like, horrific because it was written by a twenty-year-old white guy,” and I posted it to my Patreon as a bonus novel. So, there are at least a couple of hundred people who’ve potentially been able to read my juvenilia. I don’t think I’d put it on Amazon.

Back at the Denver WorldCon, I think it was, I suggested a panel of writers reading their juvenilia, because I had this, and we had Connie Willis on it…

Oh, that’s great.

…Josh Palmatier, Sarah Hoyt and me, and we all read. Connie didn’t really have juvenilia, but she read some of her early romance short stories that she had written.

Oh, yeah. She used to write for the magazines.

Yes, she did. And I read from my novel, and I don’t know what the others read. It actually went over really, really well. It’s sometimes hard to find authors who are willing to do it, though.

Well, I think it’s fun. And sometimes you get, like, “It Came from the Slush Pile,” reading terrible things that, you know, were submitted. That always makes me a little bit twitchy because God knows I’ve submitted some terrible things and I would be embarrassed. But if you’re an author and you’re embracing your own terribleness, you know, you can get the same laughs, I think.

The fear of going to “It Came from a Slush Pile” would be, you’d be sitting there prepared to laugh at this stuff, and then they read something you submitted.

Exactly. A frisson of terror.

So, you mentioned Clarion. You were an actual English major, were you not, at university?

I was. I took the very laziest path. In retrospect, I got more out of my history classes, and I probably should have majored in that. I almost double majored, but I needed to take one more class, and instead I went to Clarion, so I said, “Fine, I’ll do a history minor.” But yeah, it was just, you know, “I like to write. I like to read…” I thought I was going to…I went into college intending to become an English teacher. I thought that was, you know, the safe path, like, a plausible thing to do.

And then when I was a freshman, I ended up taking a workshop, a ten-day workshop that Orson Scott Card ran, because he had an association with my university. And they…like, the university…had this apartment, or I guess it was like a little townhouse, in Washington, D.C., and Scott would go up there and run these ten-day workshops for, you know, eight or ten college kids. And I went in there and I took some stories and Scott kind of took me aside and said, “I think you have it in you to do this professionally.” And that was only encouragement I needed. I then immediately threw away all my plans to have any kind of reasonable backup, you know, professional safety net and said, “Okay, I’m just going to be a writer. I’m going to do it.”

Well, I was going to ask about your experience as an English major, because when I’ve talked to some writers who have done that and they’ve taken creative writing, they say that they had a…they would run into pushback because of what they wanted to write. And obviously, you at least had some classes with Orson Scott Card, a previous guest on here, so I’m guessing there wasn’t a particular problem with the genre you were writing.

Well, it’s funny, because I took…it actually didn’t have to be genre fiction to get into that workshop, and I submitted literary stories because I had sort of been beaten about the head and told, “Oh, we don’t really want to cover the science fiction and fantasy stuff,” right? And so, I was writing…you know, they were still weird and they had elements of crime and stuff like that, but I was writing stories without supernatural or science fictional elements. So, once I got to the workshop, I freed myself. I was like, “This is a sympathetic audience. I’ll do this.” I did end up doing my honors thesis in poetry instead of fiction, because the woman who ran the fiction department, though she was lovely, just did not get science fiction and fantasy, she just didn’t really understand it. I found the poets in the department much more sympathetic, so I came out with a degree with a concentration in creative writing, but my thesis was poetry.

So, what happened after university? How did you break in?

Yeah, so I went to Clarion, I took a couple of stories, I met a bunch of great people who I’m still close friends with, Tobias Buckell, Jenn Reese are both still writing a lot. Lots of other people, honestly. I learned so much from my instructors. It was really huge for me. And like I said, then I came back and I wrote a novel to make sure that I hadn’t broken my brain by being at Clarion and came to California pretty much on a whim. I was living in the mountains of North Carolina. I was working in advertising, so I was making money, but I really did not enjoy my job. I kind of didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror every morning. I mean, it’s fine. You can do advertising and do it ethically. I worked for a company whose explicit approach was to go into small towns and put the locally owned businesses out of business. Like, they had specific strategies to do this so that they could dominate the local markets, and I just felt kind of twitchy about it. So, I had a friend who is studying astronomy in grad school in Santa Cruz, and he said, “Santa Cruz is beautiful, you should move out here. I need a housemate in the fall anyway. I’m going to have to move.” So I said, “Sure.” And I loaded up the car and drove for four days across the country.

Loaded up the car, and you moved to…

I did. I moved to…

Not quite Beverly…

Not quite. A little bit farther north. But, you know, the whole time I was still writing, and I had…around ’99, 2000, started to occasionally sell stories to, like, very tiny small-press magazines and stuff like that. So I was getting some encouragement. I got up here and I lived in Santa Cruz for a while and I moved up to Oakland after I met Heather Shaw, whom I eventually married, also a writer and editor. We started dating, and dating up and down the coast from Santa Cruz to Oakland proved to be a little bit tiring, so I moved up to Oakland, and I got a job at Locus. I applied at Locus Magazine, and was fortunate in that one of my Clarion instructors was Michaela Roessner, who was very good friends with Charles Brown, who was still alive and running Locus. So, I came up for the interview and he said, “Oh, I asked Mikey about you and, you know, you got the job if you want it. Here’s what the job is.” So that helped a lot.

For those who don’t know, you should maybe explain what Locus is.

Oh, sure. Locus is a trade publishing magazine for science fiction and fantasy. So, we run book reviews, we run interviews, we run obituaries–I write those–we run listings of science fiction books, we do all sorts of features, we cover the conventions, we do quarterly forthcoming books listing where we painstakingly gather information from publishers big and small about all the science fiction and fantasy books that are coming out in the next nine months. And that’s a really helpful issue. Booksellers and librarians really love that issue because they can go through and see what’s coming down the road that they’re interested in.

Lots of little tiny print.

You know, we’ve revamped a little bit. Our reviews are a bigger type size than they used to be. But yeah, the listings of books…there’s just so many books now, right? With all the small-press stuff, the barrier to entry to self-publish is so low that, you know, we used to get on the order of, you know, hundreds of books in a month, and now sometimes we’ll see, you know, several hundred bucks a month, right, instead of like a couple hundred. And, you know, it’s got squeezed in there somewhere. 

I was just gonna say, you know, I’ve been reading books for a long time. And there’s this thing among authors known as Locus Envy, where you’re looking in the news and you see that, you know, somebody you never heard of just landed a twelve-book deal for $14 million and the mini-series is coming out next week…yeah, so.

It’s an issue, but I write the People in Publishing column, which has all of those deals in it, and it used to drive me nuts, especially when I was, like, desperate to sell a novel, because I had been at Locus for a few years before I sold the book. I’d been at Locus for a couple of years before I sold the story professionally. But I’ve actually come around to say, “You know, what this tells me is that there are still publishers out there that will value science fiction and fantasy to that degree, right? They’re willing to invest in it.” And the thing to remember is that, like, somebody else’s hugely successful book is the thing that subsidizes your potentially less successful book, right? I had the same editor as George R.R. Martin for a little while. And you know what? My books didn’t do like George’s did, but George’s made enough money that they could take chances on books like mine.

In my case, I’m at DAW, and Patrick Rothfuss has helped a lot in that regard.

Oh, absolutely right. Rising tides, they lift all boats.

So, we should probably talk about your books…

Sure!

…and how you write them, because that’s what this is all about. So, looking at the Axiom series, maybe you can give a synopsis so I don’t give it away. I have read the first two books and enjoyed them very much. I just came back from St. John’s, Newfoundland, because my wife is an engineer and she was on a committee of Engineers Canada and she had to go up there for a meeting, so I tagged along, since I’d never been out there. But it’s a three-hour flight to Toronto and another three hours to St. John’s. I think I finished the first book in that first trip to St. John’s and I read the other while I was there. So I got them both read before I talked to. So, I enjoyed it very much, but maybe you can explain what the premise is.

Yeah, I always try to do an elevator pitch and I always say I need a very slow freight elevator and a very tall building. Essentially, they’re set about 600 years in the future. Humankind has made contact with a species of aliens, which we call Liars because we don’t know what they’re really called, because they lie about everything, which leads to some funny first-contact shenanigans that I sort of exposit, talk about a little bit, but it’s all deep pre-history to my characters. Right? They’ve known about these aliens for centuries. But the liars just confabulate. They make up stories about their own origins, about the nature of the universe. You can’t really rely on them to tell the truth about anything. But eventually, once humans figure out what they’re dealing with, they manage to work out some trade, right? If you make sure that the thing that they’re giving you is the thing that, you know, you think it is, sometimes the trade works out okay. And one of the things that the liars give us is the location of these wormhole gates. There’s one out near Jupiter, and we don’t know it’s there because until it’s bombarded with exactly the right kind of radiation, it’s nothing. It’s empty space. But when it’s bombarded with the right combination of radiation, it opens up into this portal that leads, potentially, to various other places. So, there are about thirty known wormhole gates scattered throughout the galaxy, and what they enable humans to do is go out and colonize, right? They can spread. So, a lot of these systems have habitable planets or planets that can be terraformed, which the Liars also have great technology for.

So, the first book starts with a bunch of, sort of ragtag post-humans, a crew, because I like a nice misfit crew, and they’re working salvage and security for a space station, the stuff out in the outer fringes of our solar system, out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and they find this wrecked ship. And when they open up the wrecked ship, they find a bunch of destroyed cryopods and one cryopod that still has a human being in it. And this is pretty weird because they realize promptly that this ship was what they call a Goldilocks ship. So, back before we met the Liars, back before we got some technological remediation, the planet was not doing very well, and in a sort of desperate last-ditch effort to save humanity, we sent out a bunch of ships, just slow, sublight speed, with people cryogenically frozen. They’re seed ships, right, so they have lots of embryos and lots of seed stock and they just send them out to various stars that look like they have planets in the Goldilocks zones, right, so planets that might conceivably be habitable. Probably most of them aren’t. Probably ninety-nine percent of them aren’t. But things were so desperate and there were enough people who were willing to volunteer to take this shot that they sent these colony ships out. The funny thing is then, you know, while they were all still taking their slow journeys, then we met aliens, and the aliens helped us, and they helped us fix Earth. And so, most of those colony ships were sort of forgotten. And, in fact, some of them would arrive to find the planet that they were going to try to colonize already having a thriving colony, right, if it happened to be one that had a wormhole gate in that system.

So, they find this Goldilocks ship, and it’s baffling because it should not be in our solar system. It should be really, really far away by now, right? It left 500 years ago. And so, they wake up the one person who’s in the ship, who’s a biologist named Elena, and ask her what happens. She says, “Oh, our ship, it was incredible, it was amazing. We met aliens.” And they all say, “Oh, yeah, we know. We know about the aliens. That’s kind of old news. I’m sorry.” And she says, “No, no, no, not those aliens. These are different aliens.” As far as humans know, Liars are the only other intelligence pieces of aliens in the universe. We’ve never met any other ones. And it turns out there’s a reason for that. So the aliens Elena met are much more terrifying, much more uninterested in working with humans and more interested in scouring humans from life. And eventually, I mean, this is a little bit of a spoiler, but it’s the name of the trilogy, they discover that there’s this ancient alien race called the Axiom, and one hates to make generalizations about entire species, but as a culture, the Axiom were not nice. They were about domination and control and exterminating anything that might be a threat to them. The Liars they kept around because the Liars  could be useful to them. They were essentially, you know, a servitor species, which is not fun for them. The Axiom, thousands of years ago, mostly went dormant as they wait for various long-term projects that they have set to go into fruition.

So, essentially what my ragtag crew discovers is that the galaxy is littered with these space stations and these facilities and these things that look like planets–but they’re not actually planets–that the Axiom have built that are doing stuff we don’t even understand, that have technology way beyond anything we can imagine. And so, there’s extremely dangerous toys lying around. The problem is, if the Axiom happened to wake up and notice us like, say, if we start messing with their toys, they’d probably exterminate all humanity. So now my crew has this terrible secret that they want to tell anybody about, because humans, being humans, will go try to pillage these treasure boxes to see what they can find, and as a consequence, they might kill everybody. So my crew is trying to sort of, with the help of a Liar named Lantern, who’s from a sect that knows about the Axiom, this crew, they’re trying to figure it out. They’re trying to deal with it. So the books are about them, basically, like running into Axiom stuff and attempting to deal with. And then, over the course of the trilogy, trying to sort of figure out a larger strategy to deal with this huge existential threat that no people know about. And there’s all kinds of deeper stuff in it, like why the Liars tell lies is one of the big reveals in the first book, you know, the cultural reason for why they make up all these stories. And the second book is about a giant virtual reality engine, because I like VR stuff. That was really fun. And then the third book, The Forbidden Stars, the one that’s coming out, which you have not read…

No, I have not.

So I sort of mentioned, what I like to do in series, I’ve done a few series, I like to sort of, you know, put some Chekhov’s guns, not even on the mantelpiece, but like way out in the front yard, you know? So, in book one, I’ll mention something and I’ll come back to it three books later. And that’s essentially what this book is about. I mentioned that, of the wormhole gates, there’s one gate that people just stopped coming back through. Right? Like, colonists went in, for a while there was communication, and then it just shut down. And various, you know, ships have been sent in to try to figure out what happened on the other side, what happened to the system. They never come back, either. Right? So it becomes known as the forbidden system, the interdicted system. Nobody’s allowed, you know, the militaries, or the polities, that control the wormhole gates don’t let anybody go there because it seems to be a one-way ticket. You seem to not come back. The assumption is that something horrible happened there. Well, in the course of the series, my ragtag crew of post-humans, they get hold of technology that nobody else has, Axiom technology. They can open wormholes anywhere they want to in the galaxy, so they can go places that no one else can go. And they decide, for various reasons, that they should go see what’s happening in the Vanir System, that’s the system that’s interdicted.

I’m going to predict the Axiom has something to do with it.

You know, it’s possible that mean, bad aliens could be involved. So, that’s what The Forbidden Stars is about. They’re able to go. And it’s the Vanir system is the most remote of all the colonized systems. It’s so far out in the galaxy that conventionally, you know, it would take thousands of years for a ship to get there. So ,it really is a complete mystery. And the crew pops in and they find out all sorts of interesting things that are happening. And the third book, because it’s the last one in the trilogy, I also reveal like some big fundamental stuff about the axiom. You know, it ends up having sort of…it’s a book with two climaxes, because they have to sort of deal with the local problem, and then I want to like address the sort of global, bigger problem, which is that, like, six people are trying to save the galaxy, which is a great story, but practically maybe, maybe the scale is a little bit beyond what they can deal with. So…

In your dialogue, which is very witty and fun, because it is, like, this ragtag bunch trying to save the galaxy, it did have for me certain Guardians of the Galaxy vibes.

Yeah, right?

A completely different crew, but it was still that kind of joking, and the banter was…it’s really a lot of fun to read.

Well, you know, I love that sense of, sort of a found family that the bumbling around in space, you know, the Firefly feel, right, I mean, The Killjoys feel, like there’s a lot of things that kind of have that vibe. And I think it’s fun. And you either have…if you’re trapped on a ship with a bunch of people, either you poisonously hate each other–and that’s, you know, one way you can go in space opera to have drama–or you sort of figure out how to, like, tolerate and enjoy one another’s weird qualities and foibles.

Now, how did this all come about? What was the seed for this trilogy? And is the way that it came about fairly typical of the way that you find your stories to tell?

The first book in Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason series.

So, this one’s a little bit odd in that I am historically a fantasy writer. The thing I was probably best known for before this was an urban fantasy series about a character named Marla Mason that I did ten books and a prequel, a short novel, and a collection right? And so I had spent a decade of my working life doing urban fantasy. And other things, too, but mostly always contemporary fantasy. A little bit of sword and sorcery and stuff. So I thought, well, one thing I really love that I’ve never written much, except the occasional short story, I love space opera. And I always felt this resistance because I have a great respect for science and a great respect for math. And I’m not very good, especially at the math. I have friends who are astronomers who can help me out with stuff, but when it comes to, like, calculating orbital mechanics and stuff, I am hopeless. The Internet has been a great help because there are all sorts of calculators where you can plug in values and sort of figure out things, but it’s just not the way my mind works. And I always thought, you know, if I write it, I’m going to screw it up, I’m not going to be able to do it well enough. Just in the back of my head, I thought, “I’m not qualified to write space opera.” And then I stopped myself and I thought, “But really, space opera is a big tent, right? Like, you can have, you know, The Expanse is pretty crunchy, right, like it’s pretty much…they try to stay within the realm of feasibility for the most part. But at the other end, you know, you have stuff like Firefly, right, you have stuff like Farscape. So, somewhere in there is a range where I can exist happily, right? So, sort of the small-scale local solar system stuff, I thought, “Okay, I will try and learn enough that I can do this halfway plausibly, like see what it’s actually, you know, how the spaceships would actually work, actually pay attention to it, and then as quickly as I can, I will get magical alien technology, right? The stuff the Axiom has, like, they can violate laws of physics, right? Like they can do all sorts of things. Once I was got that, I was like, oh…

Very much Clarke’s Law stuff there.

I can have artificial gravity at that point, okay, right? Like, there’s all these things I can do. I can have, you know, wormhole travel so that it doesn’t take, you know, thousands or millions of years to get from point A to point B. And once I sort of told myself, “It’s OK, I can find a place that is reasonable to use my level of science and math knowledge. It’ll be okay. A space opera has a lot of flexibility, right? It’s not like it’s hard science fiction anyway. It’s supposed to be sort of adventure stories in space,” I decided I could do that. So I sat down with a notebook and I wrote down everything that I like in space opera. And you know, I love Iain Banks, you know, I like Lois McMaster Bujold, I like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract stuff, like, my taste in space opera is super broad. So, I just wrote down all the stuff I like, post-human weirdos, like Peter Watts’s Blindside I love, it’s a great book. It’s super depressing, but it’s about a spaceship full of post-human weirdos and they all have a weird thing about them, right? You know, there’s the person who has a bifurcated brain, and there’s a technologically plausible vampire, and there’s, you know, somebody who has multiple personalities. There’s…and I really like that sort of assemblage of bizarre characters. So that was one of the things. I like weird, menacing alien technology. I like wormholes. I like really huge-scale space stations floating around, right, where there are entire sort of hothouse cultures that develop on space stations. So I made a list of all the things I love.

Then, I made a somewhat shorter list of things I hate. Like, alien cultures that are monocultures, right? I used to see this lot more in old science fiction. People have gotten better about it. But you know, sort of the Star Trek thing, where this is a planet of, they’re all worriers, they all have bumpy foreheads, and they all follow the Bushido code, right? Like, I always thought that was kind of boring because just in my neighborhood in South Berkeley, there are probably 400 overlapping cultures and subcultures, right? And so I thought, if I’m going to have aliens, they need to have that level of complexity.

Now, there’s a reason that most science fiction writers don’t do that, and that’s because it impossible. You can’t have anything approaching the granularity of actual culture and subculture in an alien species. That’s why you have the shorthand that says, oh, they’re all warriors. And then maybe you point out, “Well, there’s some pacifists over here and there’s some guys who just really like writing bicycles over here.” But sort of the way that I approach that was by having the Liars, who create their own version of their culture, their own history. So every group of them you meet, whether it’s a giant ship or if it’s, you know, a small, you know, half a dozen of them living together on a hollowed-out asteroid. They all have their own made-up story about where they come from and what they are and their purpose in the universe. You know, they have religions and it’s unclear for much of the series whether they believe the things that they tell you or whether they’re just messing with outsiders, or what. And eventually it does, as I said, get revealed in book one, why they are the way they are. But that was my approach to dealing with that thing that, you know, that I don’t like so much in science fiction.

So, I took my big list of things I loved and things I didn’t love, and I bashed together, you know, sixty pages of prose and an outline, and I started sending it around. And I remember my agent had sent it out to a bunch of places, and I had reached out to some (publishers) that I knew personally, and, you know, it was like any novel submission, we were getting some rejections and some “close, but not quite”s, and all that. 

So I was walking around Lake Merritt, the beautiful jewel of Oakland, out with my friend Sarah, walking around, enjoying the weather and just talking about stuff, and I got an email from Mark Gascoigne, who was then at Angry Robot, the science fiction publisher that he founded. And I had known Mark a little bit from back in the day. He’d worked on some anthologies that I had had stories in and stuff like that. We had a friendly relationship. So I’d said, “Hey, Mark, I have this space opera, maybe you’ll take a look.” And he wrote me back and he said he loved it and he wanted to buy it. So that was that was a happy thing. And, you know, I jumped around and said, “Hooray!” And then we talked about sort of the nitty-gritty. And the cool thing was, I sold them one book, and Mark liked what I had so much that he came back to me and said, “Actually, how would you like to do a couple more books?” And so, pretty soon I had, not just not just one book, but I had a trilogy deal, which was awesome because I like to be gainfully employed for years.

It’s funny when publishers say things like that, no author ever says, “No, no, I think I’d just like to do the one.”

“I’ll just do the one.” There are circumstances under which I would decline, like, if the money was really terrible…

It is possible to write a book that just…sequels make no sense to, of course.

Oh, absolutely. And you know, if it was a publisher, I wasn’t sure about, maybe, right? But I had, you know, I had a good feeling about Mark. He’d done me some good turns that he did not have to do earlier in my career. So, I was absolutely thrilled. And, you know, I had friends who’d published with Angry Robot and I’d done all my due diligence, so I was pretty happy. And they’ve done great with the books. They got Paul Scott Canavan, did these wonderful covers.

Yeah, they’re very nice.

Yeah, right? Like, I got a book with a spaceship on the cover. I thought I’d never have that my career. You know, I write about weird magicians who live in cities and stuff.

I had a book called Falcon’s Egg, which was the second book in a duology I did for a small Canadian press called Bundoran Press. And it has an exploding spaceship on the cover…

Oh, that’s great.

…and that been a dream of mine since I was like eleven, so.

Oh, yeah, that’s beautiful.

It’s also a bit of a spoiler because it’s about two-thirds of the way through the book with that particular spaceship explodes, and it’s also on the cover of the first book. So you know which spaceship it is. There’s only one spaceship, really, one big spaceship. But still, it’s an exploding spaceship, so I like it.

Well, it creates suspense. People are reading, waiting to see when the spaceship is going to explode.

I suppose that’s true. So, just to back away from the trilogy for a minute, when you’re writing your short stories and things like that, what’s a typical way for you to get an idea for something like that or for some of your other work?

You know, I just…my brain is always looking for stuff. You know, I read a lot of popular science, I read a lot of history and mythology, I read a whole lot of fiction. And what a lot of writers do, I’m sure you know, is, you’ll read something and be like, “Oh, that’s great idea. I could have done that better.” Or, “Oh, I would have taken that in a different direction, right?” And so, sometimes you do that. You go, you just take it in a different direction.

It is a field that we often say is in conversation with itself. And that’s part of it, all these ideas are floating around and people deal with them differently. And you think, “Well, I don’t like the way you dealt with it. I’m going to write it this way,” or, “Well, she did a good job on that. But I would have taken it over here.” So we all are always feeding off of this stuff.

Yeah. And I love that. You know, I love the sense that we’re working within this huge sort of shared universe of tropes and ideas and possibilities that we can ring all these changes on. And we can interrogate and we can critique things, right, that other people have done or that have just been common in the field. So, I think about that stuff a lot. And, you know, I’m a character-driven writer, honestly, so I come up with a neat idea or cool situation and then I try to come up with a character who would be the most fun to torture in that situation, right? And then I just attempt to sort of build them up psychologically into my mind and model what they would be likely to do.

Is that how you came up with the characters for the Axiom trilogy?

Absolutely. I wanted to have somebody, you know, I wanted to have sort of an acerbic space captain, right, who’s a little bit abrasive, but is ultimately good, good-hearted. I wanted to have a weird cyborg. There’s a character named Ashok who a lot of people love…

I like him.

Ashok is great.

I know a lot of engineers. So he kind of…

Exactly. Yeah. Ashok is a classic engineer, right? He doesn’t care as much about why as about how he’s going to know fix it or exploit it. He’s an early adopter. You know, I have friends who are always…you know, I live in the Bay Area. I’m surrounded by tech people. So I know people, whenever the new thing is out there, they’re the first one in line or, you know, the first one to order it online. And so I thought, you know, you take that far enough in the future where there’s better prosthetics and stuff, then maybe you would have people who would say, “You know, my human arm is fine, but it wouldn’t be so terrible if I was in a horrible salvage accident and lost it, because then I could get this amazing new prosthetic that has the in-built microsurgery tools or whatever.” Right? So that’s Ashok. He just, he wants to improve what nature gave him. And I wanted to have sort of a morose ship’s doctor to kind of ground the crew and be sort of a voice of reason. So I put him in there. And, you know, I have a ship’s AI, who is in love with the captain for complicated reasons.

And so I sort of put together…I wanted to have a crew that had lots of strong personalities that would sort of act in conflict with each other. You know, they’re a family. They love each other. But that doesn’t mean they always get along, they always agree. I’m also a hopeless romantic, like a lot of my stuff is love stories. And there is a love story that’s central to the trilogy. And throughout the trilogy, I resisted making a plot point…it’s the captain and the woman who they thaw out of the cryopod, so it’s a time-slip romance, sort of…I resisted the urge to make a source of conflict them getting into a fight, because I really wanted to demonstrate them as a partnership. Right. Even when they disagree, they support one another. They have each other’s back. So that was important to me in that book.

When you were outlining and synopsizing, what do those look like for you? You said you did like sixty pages. That’s a fairly lengthy synopsis.

That was text. That was sample chapters. I wrote sixty pages of actual book, and then then about a page of what I thought the rest of the book was going to be, which was sort of semi-accurate. And then for the other two, they said, “We just need something written on a piece of paper so that we can justify writing you checks, right?”

Nice.

So essentially…well, you know, I’ve done a lot of books and Mark was familiar with my work and knew that I would…you know, I’ve done work for hire, like I if I’m known for anything in this business, it’s for being reliable and turning in decent copy on time. And so, for those I just was able to write a couple paragraphs, kind of about what I thought they were about. So those were cool. But I will tell you my trick for writing outlines and synopses if you want.

I’m sure people will be interested.

So, I had, I struggled like hell with it for the longest time. I would sit down and I would write, you know, what was going to happen in the book, and it would be the driest, most boring recitation. It would be like a third-grade book report of a book you didn’t like that much. And it drove me nuts. And then one day, I was at a party and I’d had a couple of drinks, and a friend of mine who was a writer asked me what I was working on. I started telling them how excited I was about this book, that I was going to work on. And I was telling them all the coolest things about it, and like all the things I was most excited about and how amazing it was, and something clicked in my head. And I said, “This is the way I need to write synopses. I need to write my synopsis like I’m slightly drunk at a party telling an editor how awesome my book is going to be.” And so that’s what I did. You know, I still hit the highlights, I talk about what happens in the book, I talk about the plot and the characters, but I do it with the energy and the enthusiasm. And, you know, I’m not plodding and sequential, I talk about it in a way that conveys my excitement about it. And since I have done that, every proposal I have tried to write like that has sold. I mean, maybe it’s taken a few times, but they’ve all sold.

I’m actually…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. So I’m working with anybody that wants to come in and say hi and ask me questions or give me something to critique. And actually, I had a fellow in yesterday who was asking that specific question, about how to create a successful synopsis. So I’ll be sure to point him to your answer.

Yeah. You don’t have to be drunk. You know, this is…that’ just me. But something…whatever helps you convey that enthusiasm in an uninhibited way.

What’s your actual writing process look like? I presume you work directly on the keyboard. You’re not writing in longhand under a tree somewhere in a parchment notebook.

I used to, and when I write poetry, I do tend to write longhand. I feel like I get a little bit closer to the language somehow when I write longhand. But for novels and for stories, I pretty much compose straight into the keyboard. Back in the old days, I would sometimes draft longhand and then my first round of revision would be when I typed it in.

Yeah, I used to do that.

In practice, I eventually hit a point where I had to hustle, like, a lot. I was writing two and a half, three books a year for a while, just because, you know, I had a kid and I work for a non-profit, and so I had to make some money. Things have eased off since then. But just for time reasons, I stopped writing longhand and I started typing directly because it was just faster. And I’ve kept it up. I compose pretty comfortably on my little laptop.

Do you work at home or do you work out somewhere? Where do you like to work?

I was sort of your classic coffee-shop writer for a long time. This was especially when I lived in places where I had housemates. It could be hard to find a place that was quiet. And so I would go out and, you know, find the corner of a coffee shop and write. As I said, I had a kid about twelve years ago and that stopped me going out quite so much. So now mostly I tend to write at home. I’ll write wherever with my laptop in my lap. if it’s only an hour or two, if I am on deadline and I’m having to work for hours and hours at a stretch, I acknowledge my forty-something-year-old body and set up a little more ergonomically at a desk, plug the laptop into the monitor and the keyboard.

Are you a fast writer?

I am a slow thinker and a fast writer. Yeah. So I tend to think about stuff a lot, and by the time I sit down to type, it comes out pretty quickly.The Axiom books in particular…I’ve always been kind of a binge driver by preference, like, I’ll not write at all week, and then on a day I’ll spend seven or eight hours writing. And I had to adjust that after I had a kid, especially when he was little, because I didn’t have long stretches of uninterrupted time anymore. So, I had to retrain my brain to be able to write in sort of ten-minute snatches or half-Hour snatches. And so, as a result, I’m a much more flexible writer now than I used to be. But my preference is still long stretches of time and to draft things very quickly. The Dreaming Stars was written…like, actual days spent typing, probably in less than a month, and half of it I wrote in a week at a writing retreat where I went. You know, I have a kid, I have a day job, like, so if I take the time away to go write, I have to maximize that time. I have to really use it. So I was writing 10 or 12,000 words a day at that retreat.

I got a chance to do that with a book called Magebane, which is…it’s written under a pseudonym, Lee Arthur Chane, but it’s me, as I keep telling people when I’m trying to sell it to. “No, really, it’s me. I’ll sign it Lee Arthur Chane. But really, it’s me”. But there’s…the Banff Center has a self-directed retreat you can go on, where you stay in…they’re basically dorms, hotels, a cheap way to stay in Banff…and then you just write, and I did 50,000 words in a week. I don’t do that usually. And I have a kid, too. She’s gone to university as of this year, but still.

Oh, yeah. Well, in my house I can’t produce to that level. But if I’m in a place where my only job is to write a lot? And for The Forbidden Stars, I went…I had some friends who have a place up in Marin that’s in the country, and they kindly let me stay up there for a few days, and I pounded out, not quite half, but a big chunk of The Forbidden Stars I wrote up there, going slowly stir-crazy all alone in the forest.

What does your revision process look like once you have that draft? You do produce polished prose? Do you have to go back and do a lot of fixing and rewriting? Do you show it to beta readers? How does it work for you?

Yeah, it’s not super polished. It tends to be pretty schematic because I’m writing very quickly. So, I get down the situation that’s happening, I usually get down some good lines of dialogue. My next pass I go through and I flesh out the world. You know, I remember, “Oh, sometimes things have odours, right? Sometimes people have physical reactions to things that, you know, they say to each other.” So I go through and I do an extra layer. So my stuff always gets longer. So my first drafts will be maybe 70,000 words. And then. I’ll go back through and flesh them out and, like, I’ll foreshadow and I’ll touch up my subplots and all that, and they’ll grow by ten or fifteen or 20,000 words in the course of revision. I’m a putter-inner rather than taker-outer…

Yeah, me too.

…as a reviser. Yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s more efficient that way. You’re not throwing away words you could get paid for. That’s my feeling.

How long are the books? I read them in e-book, so I have no idea.

Yeah. They’re like eighty-five, ninety, around that range. That’s a pretty comfortable range. Like, most of my novels are about that long.

That’s kind of what I felt, because it wasn’t like I felt like I was slogging through Game of Thrones, which, you know I enjoyed, but they’re very long. But because they were in e-book—and I read both of them in e-book, but certainly I got through yours fashion than I did his. So I knew they were shorter.

Yeah. You know, I love a big immersive fantasy. It’s just not what I write. You know, I tend to, you know, lean and mean…I think the longest book I’ve written is maybe a 110, 120,000 words long.

Does it go straight to your editor once you’re happy with it, or do you have other people who look at it first?

Well, when I was newer, when I was first starting out, I had a lot of beta readers. And, you know, I have a lot of friends who are writers. If there’s something that I feel like isn’t working, I will reach out to some trusted friends, whose biases I know and understand, and I will ask them about things. In practice, like, in terms of deadlines, I don’t have a lot of time to send out stuff for the most part. And at this point, I’ve done, you know, thirty-some novels or something like that. I can usually tell if it’s kind of working, you know, so I’ll do my round of vision to clean it up, and then I’ll sort of read…put it aside if I can for a little while, read the whole thing, and sort of minimally mark it up as I read through it, because what I’m looking for in that read is like horrible failures of pacing, or horrible, you know, changes in tone, things that just…you know, I try to get a sense of the gestalt of the whole thing to see if it’s working. And if it’s not, then I sort of fine tune that. And then I do…I love to line edit I will line edit things all day, I do a line-edit pass or two, and then I send it off to my editor and deal with whatever they want dealt with. But for the most part, I tend to clean it…by the time I turn it into my editor, it’s usually pretty clean.

My agent is good, especially about character issues, so sometimes I’ll run a book past her. I’ve…you know, I went to Charlie Finlay’s Blue Heaven writing workshop once back in the day. So, I have done more of a critique process, but for the most part…Tim Powers said once that he never shows his books to anyone who’s not in a position to write him a check for them, which is not…he’s a little bit stretching the truth. He does show it to them. I know his wife helps him out stuff, but I sort of thought, “Oh, that’s a nice ethos. I can get behind that.”

Well, I’ve just always lived someplace where there wasn’t anybody around to help. So I’ve always…pretty much it just go straight to my editor. And what does your editor come back with typically? What are the sorts of things…I know you’ve worked with more than one editor…what sorts of things do they typically come back with you to maybe tweak a little more?

You know, I probably block all these things out. Revision is very traumatic. I remember on The Forbidden Stories, it was kind of cool, I had Simon Spanton, the venerable British editor, is now…who’s worked with all sorts of, you know, big science fiction, space opera, people…he edited the third book, which was cool. And he came back with a lot of really interesting stuff about me maybe not fully thinking through the implications of some of the technologies that I was introducing, right.? Because I had all this, “Oh, here’s all this cool stuff.” And Simon said, “Well, that’s cool, but you have to think if you have this in your universe, that implies this and implies this. And why don’t they just do this?” Right? So he had me sort of scale back some of my more godlike technology and make stuff  a little bit more grounded and plausible. And it is also, like, if your character can wave a magic wand and defeat, you know, a battalion of enemies, that’s not quite as exciting, right, as having them have to struggle a little more. So Simon was great. You know, it’s stuff like, “Maybe beef up this character a little more or, you know, I thought this thing came out of nowhere. Could you maybe set it up and prepare it a little better?” But yeah, I mean, honestly, turning in pretty clean drafts is just one of the things, it’s one of the things that came in the box for me. It’s one of things I’m pretty good at.

My editor at DAW, of course, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s great about picking up on things that maybe don’t quite make sense. My current fantasy series, we worked a lot on it because she was making sure that I had thought through things like that, so I didn’t get in trouble further down the road. Has that ever happened to you where you’ve put something into a book in a series, you had a long series, and you got bitten by it later down the road because you put it in as a sort of a throwaway moment, then you want to do something later and you can’t do it because you’ve established in your world that that’s not possible. Anything like that ever happened to you?

It is a difficulty. Yeah.

Continuity, I guess.

Yeah, it has happened. In my urban fantasy series, I could usually find ways to route around that damage, because it’s magic. I can come up with magic or a new kind of magic or a more powerful magic or whatever. So, usually I could work on it. I did think of another editorial feedback thing that was helpful. So, in The Dreaming Stars, they go to the Jovian system, they spend some time there and they spend some time on Ganymede. And I did a lot of research about Ganymede, and Ganymede is fascinating. And so, I just filled the book with all these wonderful Ganymede facts. And my editor came back and said, “You know, this book is really enjoyable. I love the banter and the interplay with the characters. Nothing happens for the first quarter of this book. They just talk about Ganymede. Maybe we could scale back on the Ganymede facts and increase the tension here and there.” And so I said, “Fine.” I did I did a reading where I was like, “So here, I’m going to read to you the Ganymede facts I had to cut from my novel.

Well, at least you had have a use for them.

That’s right.

Well, we’re getting within the last ten minutes or so here, so I’m going to move to the big philosophical questions. I’d like to change my voice for that: Big Philosophical Questions. It’s really just one question, with multiple parts, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction fantasy? And why do you think anybody writes science fiction fantasy? Why do we do this?

This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m going to be principal speaker at PhilCon in November and I have to write a speech, and so I was thinking about things I could talk about. And it dovetails pretty neatly into this question. So, for me, I grew up in rural North Carolina, lived in a trailer park, right? The people that I knew were factory workers or they were farm workers, right? Like the fancy people had retail jobs or like office jobs, right? There was no sense that there was like a literary or creative life, right, that you could be more, that you could pursue a life in the arts, that you could, you know, move more than ten miles away from where your family had grown up. And there’s some good things to be said about that. You know, my dad’s side of the family, especially, is very close-knit, and there’s a real sense of community there. But for me, I always kind of had my head in the clouds and my eyes on the stars. And so, the fact that I had access to all these books that were in my parents’ house and that were in my grandmother’s house, what they did was show me the possibility of other worlds, right? That there could be something more than living in, you know, among the swamps and the soybean fields in eastern North Carolina, that if that didn’t feel like the right world for me, that there might be another world that did feel right. And it just opened my eyes.

When I was a kid, it was everything. You know, it’s the reason that I had the courage to go off to college, you know, I was the first person in my family to go to college. It was the reason that I was able to move out to California, which was just not…you know, my mom traveled around, but even she mostly stayed in the South. And that was all down the books, it was all down to showing me there’s all these other kinds of people and all these other worlds. And, you know, like, I’m a weird liberal bisexual person, like all sorts of things that didn’t really fit in super well where I grew up. And books showed me that it was okay, and there were places where it was OK. And I think a lot of why I wrote was because I loved the feeling that I had when I read books and I thought if I wrote, I could have that same feeling in worlds that I’d created, and that always worked, right? I write the books that I want to read. But as I got older and thought about it more and started to have a career and thought about, “What am I doing?”, sort of bigger-level, like, “What kind of books do I want to write?” I want to write books that do for other people what books did for me, right? I want to show them that there are other ways of being and there are places where you can be accepted for who you are and that it’s worth taking chances, and sometimes you’re gonna get a smacked down, sometimes it will hurt, but it’s still worth it to take the chance, and that you should live your life open-hearted. All these things that I learned from books that I certainly wasn’t getting from where I grew up, right? You know, we were pretty poor, and it was…you know, my parents always made sure we were fed. We had a roof over our heads. But, you know, it could be a little rough sometimes…that there was a world beyond that. And so, that’s what I tried to do in my books, you know? I want a kid who picks up one of my books to feel like there’s magic in the world, right? To feel that they’re gonna find their tribe, right, or at least that it’s possible that they can find their tribe. And, you know, let them go out there.

As for, “Why science fiction and fantasy?” Honestly, I think it was just early exposure. You know, I could have written other kinds of books–perhaps not crime novels, since they have a somewhat darker world view than what I’m talking about. I love reading them., but part of why I love reading them is because I don’t write them, so I can enjoy them purely as a reader and not analyze them. But, you know, it’s just, that’s what I grew up with. That’s what my parents loved.

You know, the first books that I remember reading were, you know, Stephen King, and I had an aunt who gave me some Clive Barker, you know, my grandmother gave me Heinlein and Asimov, right? And it was just, that was just the kind of story…I read comic books, you know, I watched The Twilight Zone. For whatever reason, all that stuff really appealed to me. And when I think about it intellectually, I love the ability to make metaphors literal. I love thinking about how people react to extreme circumstances, and science fiction and fantasy allow you to create really extreme circumstances, like, way more extreme than most people are going to plausibly encounter in their day to day life,

I hope.

Yeah, right. And, you know, I think the…like my favorite short story writer, dead short story writer, I suppose…is Theodore Sturgeon, and I just loved that when he wrote about technology, he wrote about how technology impacted people, how it affected humans. So, when I do science fiction, that’s always my interest, too, right? It’s like, how this changes what it means to be human, how this changes how we relate to each other as humans. I mean, that’s the stuff that I like. So, I think that’s why  science fiction and fantasy.

It sounds like a good reason to do what you do. Well, that’s kind of the end of our time, I think, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. Oh, but before we go, what are you working on now?

So, I have another novel that it looks like is going to get bought. The contract is not signed yet, so I have to be a little bit skimpy with the details. But it is a multiverse book. I’ve wanted to write a multiverse book for ages. I love, and in my short stories I write a lot about, alternate dimensions, parallel dimensions, mirror universes, all that stuff. And I get to write a book that’s a multiverse book. So, that’s the next thing.

That’s actually…my current series is the characters moving from world to world, Shaped worlds that have been created by people that live in them. And so…the first one was kind of a version of our world, only with differences, but the second one that’s out right now is a Jules Verne-inspired world.

Oh, that’s cool.

And the one after that is…it doesn’t have a real title, but the working titled is Werewolves and Vampires and Peasants, Oh, My!

That’s great!

So, I’m having a lot of fun with that. And where can people find you online?

I am at timpratt.org, which is my sporadically updated website where I put sort of officially things.

You’re an organization.

Well, yeah, unfortunately, the dot coms and all of the various other dots were taken, so I became an org. And I’m on Twitter a lot. That’s sort of my social media presence. TimPratt on Twitter. And yeah, and I’ve been doing for four or five years, for years going into my fifth year, a story a month on Patreon, because I love writing short stories and that’s a great excuse to do it every month.

Great. Well, again, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, I had a great time talking with you. I hope you enjoyed it.

Yes, it was fun. Thanks for having me.

Episode 34: John Kessel

An hour-long conversation with John Kessel, author of Pride and Prometheus, The Moon and the Other (both from Saga Press) and other novels, and, as a short-fiction writer, winner of two Nebula Awards, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award.

Website
johnjosephkessel.wixsite.com/kessel-website

Facebook
www.facebook.com/john.kessel3

John Kessel’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

John Kessel

John Kessel‘s most recent book is the 2018 novel Pride and Prometheus, published by Saga Press. He’s the author of the earlier novels The Moon and the Other, Good News from Outer Space, and Corrupting Dr. Nice, and, in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly, Freedom Beach. His short-story collections are Meeting in Infinity, a New York Times notable book, The Pure Product, and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories

His stories have twice received the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in addition to the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His play Faust Feathers won the Paul Green Playwrights Prize, and his story “A Clean Escape” was adapted as an episode of the ABC TV series Masters of Science Fiction. In 2009, his story Pride and Prometheus, on which the novel was based, received both the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. With James Patrick Kelly, he has edited five anthologies of stories revisiting contemporary short SF, most recently Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Kessel holds a B.A. in Physics and English and a Ph.D. in American Literature. He helped found and served as the first director of the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he has taught since 1982. He and his wife, the novelist Therese Anne Fowler, live and work in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, John.

Thank you. Glad to be here.

Now, we’ve never met in person, but the way you ended up on this show…I’ve been aware of your name for a long time, obviously, with your record, and being in the field, but I’d never run across you at a convention or anything like that. But Christopher Ruocchio, who was a guest on the program a little while ago, was one of your students, and he mentioned your name. And I thought, “You know, I should have him on.”

Well, I’m glad you had him on. You know, Christopher seems to be well-launched now with his first novel. I guess the second novel in that series is coming out, is that right?

Yeah. Just came out. And he’s a fellow DAW Books author, so I’d met him at a DAW dinner at WorldCon last year. That’s how we made that connection. In this field, you know, you sort of, you know somebody, then they know somebody…everybody’s connected

Even though it’s much bigger than it was when I started, it’s still a fairly small pond, and you will run into people, and everyone eventually knows everyone else in some connection.

Yep.. Well, we’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you became interested in science fiction and fantasy and specifically in writing it. Most of us, it starts with reading as kids. Is that how it worked out for you?

Pretty much, yes. I was reading science fiction and fantasy…really from, it seems like, from the beginning. I cannot remember the first book I ever read that was science fiction. There were children’s books–and I was born a long time ago, I was born in 1950, so we’re talking, you know, late ’50s, early ’60s, I was definitely already hooked on science fiction and fantasy. I liked fairy tales an awful lot, and then I somehow, you know, I went to the library and got books from the science fiction section of the library.

And back then, they had…a number of publishers had fairly serious attempts to write, publish, YA science fiction, and Robert Heinlein wrote a series of juvenile novels that I really snapped up. And also André Norton, who was Alice Mary Norton, wrote a whole series of YA science fiction novels that I loved. It was quite a shock to me when I discovered that Andre Norton was a woman. It was years later. And then around…I think it was 1963 exactly…I pretty much know exactly when it was…I was at my grandfather’s house on a Sunday, and I had had my library book there and I finished it and I had nothing else to read, and I was bored, and I asked if I could go down the block–this was in Buffalo, New York–to see if I could buy some comic books. And they said, “okay,” and so I walked down to this delicatessen, Cosentino’s Delicatessen, and they had some comic books, but they also had science fiction magazines, which I had never seen. I knew they existed, but I had never seen one. And immediately I bought my first science fiction magazines, and then I was well and truly hooked, pretty much. I had subscriptions to Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog starting in the early ’60s, so I was really much a pretty much a science fiction nerd from day one.

Well, it’s interesting, because—I’m a little bit younger than you, I was born in ’59–but that’s exactly my list of books that got me interested in it, Heinlein  and Andre Norton. Somehow I knew Andre Norton was a woman. I don’t know remember ever being surprised to find it out. So I must have read a bio or something of her early on.

I think it became much more public knowledge by the late ’60s, but up until the mid-’60s, I think, you know, she basically kept her identity close to the best.

There was James Tiptree, Jr. I was surprised to find…

Yes. Right. Me too, really. Yeah.

Well, by the time I was reading it would’ve been the late ’60s, so that’s probably why I knew it from the beginning. But that’s sort of the same list of things that I became interested in as well. So, when did you start trying your hand at writing?

Well, you know, I often tell students, my writing students, that one of the seven warning signs that you might become a writer is that you are writing fiction which is not on command by your English teacher before the age of ten, and indeed, I was writing stories and I actually made a little magazine, I would compel my friends to write them and I would illustrate stories myself, probably…maybe I was eleven or twelve. And so, I was trying to do that, and I remember there was a contest in Fantasy & Science Fiction in the mid-’60s that asked for submissions, and I submitted an entry there and I got my first rejection slip and I still have it. And so, I was at it pretty early.

I was, you know, in my early teens when I submitted my first story. I didn’t ever submit another story until I was in college. But, you know, I really…I knew that there was the possibility of an ordinary person writing stories and sending them off. And it was really quite…I was felt empowered by the fact that they had sent me a rejection slip. The idea that I, you know, John Kessel, a kid from Buffalo, New York, could write a story and send it into the magazine and they would read it and say “No,”  but they would send me a slip, just as if I were, you know, a published writer. And so, that was cool.

Yeah, I remember that that same feeling. My first published story, though, was actually…at about that age…I actually got a story published in something called Young Authors’ Open in Cat Fancy Magazine.

Wow, good for you.

It was a terrible, terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement, and he searched the world over, and he found this guy he thought was perfect, but the guy wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew he couldn’t be Santa Claus because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe. That was the…

Well, you know, it’s funny because my first submission to F&SF was what was called a Feghoot and it involved a pun.

Oh, I remember those.

Yeah.

So, were you focused on short fiction entirely? Did you try your hand at longer stuff during those years, or…?

Pretty much short fiction. I really loved short stories–still do! And so, that was my thing, was short fiction. Although I read a lot of novels, I’d never tried to write one till I was in my twenties, late twenties, and really had to learn…I mean, novels are different from short stories. And I don’t think the short story is a less important form, although, you know, in terms of making a living, certainly it’s hard to do writing short fiction. But I think artistically the short story is a beautiful form. And it’s not a practice for the novel, it’s not a less worthy or less important form, but it is different.

Somewhere on my bookshelf right behind me, I was just turning around to look, is a collection of science fiction short stories , one of those anthologies from the late ’50s, early ’60s. And, yeah, short fiction was sort of my introduction to it, and that’s sort of the way I started writing it as well. But it turns out I more of a novelist, I think, than a short story writer. Did you show your stories? You said you had this little magazine. Were you letting people read your stories?

You know, in a way, my friends were not as interested in this as I was. So, you know, it was just my thing, at that stage anyway, when I’m talking about junior high school or middle school. So, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really advertise them to people.

I usually ask that because when I’m teaching writing, and I know you’re much more of a writing teacher than I am, but I often recommend to people that they do let other people read their work because it’s a way to find out if you can tell stories that people are interested in.

Well, I think ultimately you do have to submit the story to an audience, either an audience of, you know, a teacher or mentor, or other writers. And so, I’ve actually been very active in workshopping. I like workshopping, and not just as a teacher in the university, but…I went, I was invited to, one of the last Milford workshops, run by Ed Bryant, in 1980 and then again in ’81. That was a real revelatory experience for me in 1980 because I met these other writers, many, many of them up-and-coming writers, but also they were, most of them, unknown. I mean, among the writers who were at this first workshop I went to were Ed Bryant, who was well-established at that point and was sort of a writing hero of mine, although people don’t remember him anymore.

I remember the name.

But then, Connie Willis was there, she had only published a few stories. Cynthia Felice. One of the other people that who had not published a single story at that point, who was one of the workshop members, was Dan Simmons. And George R.R. Martin was one of the writers there. So, I got to know these people really early, and it was really heartening that they would read my stories and give me critiques, so that was good.

Well, when you went to university…where did you go to university?

I went as an undergraduate to the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. It’s a small private school. And I studied astrophysics, I wanted to be an astronomer. And then I double majored. By the time I graduated, it was a degree in physics and English.

What drew you out of astrophysics to add the English?

Probably you could say that tensor calculus had something to do with it. I could do the math pretty well through the first couple of years, but by the time I got to the really higher math, and the higher physics, too, it’s tremendously mathematical. It especially was at that time, where I think the slogan was, you know, “Shut up and calculate” in physics. And so, I could…I had to struggle to do that, the really advanced math. And I could see other physics majors around me, and they were very…it was a small group of physics majors, maybe there were…I think there were twenty in my graduating class…some of them could do it much better and with more facility, more naturally, than I could. So…and I also saw that my GPA in English classes, which I was taking for fun, was like a grade-point higher than my math class. Great. So, I thought, “Well, and I’m enjoying English classes. I’ll double major.” I didn’t know what exactly I was gonna do at that point, but I know I loved reading and I at that point was starting to write stories again.

And so, I took my first creative writing class in my second semester, senior year at Rochester, and wrote a science fiction story for my final project there. And so, I was getting more serious about that. And then I went to graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. And the main reason I went there was that there was a science fiction writer on the faculty there, James Gunn, who’s, you know, still alive, ninety-six years old, I believe, and was…he’s a Grand Master of SFWA. And, so, he was my mentor there. I was in his classes and he directed my master’s thesis, which was in fiction writing. And then, on my Ph.D. dissertation, I persuaded the university to let me write a collection of stories, rather than a scholarly work, for my Ph.D. in American Lit, and so I wrote a bunch of stories and he was also on my committee at that point.

Were those science fiction and fantasy stories?

They all were. And one of them in my dissertation was “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula Award in 1982. So, I guess I, you know, I was glad I was able to do that. I mean, I was writing anyway. I would have written the stories anyway. But it was…I probably wouldn’t have finished my dissertation if I had had to write a scholarly dissertation, because I knew at that point, although I’m very interested in, you know, literary study, and I’ve taught American Lit for thirty, almost forty, years, I really wasn’t interested in writing books about, you know, canonical writers and being a scholar, I wanted to write fiction, so most of my energy went there.

Well, this is…it’s interesting to me that…I ask most authors about their, you know, if they had any formal creative writing training, and you get a really mixed bag with science fiction and fantasy authors. There are some who did it and it was not a particularly good experience for them because they met so much pushback against writing science fiction and fantasy. Fortunately, you found James Gunn.

Right.

Was he the only one teaching at that level at that time?

Well, there were very few. I think the only one I can think of…this is 1972, when I went to grad school…is Jack Williamson, who was teaching, I think, at the University of New Mexico.

Right.

 I don’t know if he was a regular faculty member or not, and I didn’t even know he was teaching there. So, the only one I knew about was Gunn, and that’s why I went there. So, I guess you could say that that was instrumental there, that he did not turn up his nose at my writing science fiction. I’m very aware of what you say, that many creative writing teachers, at least in the past, have been very skeptical of anyone who wants to write genre fiction in a, you know, a literary workshop.

Do you think that’s changing?

I think it’s changing to a degree. It depends on what kind of genre fiction you write now. If you write a story with aliens and spaceships and, you know, basically a space opera or that kind of background, in a MFA program, you’ll probably have a hard time unless you go to one of the specialized programs like the Stone Coast Non-Resident MFA, which has people like James Patrick Kelly and Liz Hand and others as teachers. But, I do think there is, you know, there’s a lot more fiction being published now by, we’ll call them mainstream writers, that has fantastic elements in it. I mean, it’s everywhere in our culture now. So…and there, you know, bestselling novels that are written that have time travel in it say or, you know, an apocalyptic plague like Station Eleven, that kills off pretty much everybody. Things that would have been in science fiction novels in 1960 now are published and they’re not really called science fiction, but they have the material of science fiction. They generally treat it a little different than a science fiction writer would, as well. But if you’re going to do spaceships and aliens, then you’re still, I think, going to be put in a different pen.

It’s interesting for me because I’m…I was asked this year to mentor an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan, the first time I’ve done that, and he’s writing a young adult fantasy novel. So it was…I was pleased, in fact, that the University Saskatchewan didn’t seem to have a problem with people writing in those kinds of genres. And it’s been interesting for me, too.

Well, there are many more professors and teachers in these programs who have genre credentials. So, I think that it is a lot better now than it was in 1972.

So, in between graduating university and starting teaching at North Carolina State University, what were you doing in that interim there?

Well, I finished my coursework for the Ph.D….must have been by ’78 or something like that…and I was supposedly writing a dissertation. Not very fast. I was writing stories. And I took a crack at being a full-time writer and didn’t have much success at it, just writing short stories. So, I got a job at a wire service as an editor. Fortunate to get that. It was a very good job. For three years, I was a copyeditor and then a news editor for a wire service called Commodity News Services out of Kansas City, which was owned by… half-owned by Knight-Ridder newspapers and also by UPI, the United Press International wire service…and I learned an awful lot from that. That was very interesting work. So, that was what I was doing while I was on the side trying to finish my dissertation.

And thenm when I finished it and got my degree in ’81, I looked for a teaching job. Because I found that, as a wire-service editor, it was very high-pressure work, I was editing text all day, and I didn’t feel like writing when I got home. So, I thought, “Well, if I get a teaching job, I can have the summers off at the very least, and my schedule during the week, I won’t have to be sitting in an office from eight to five every day doing high-pressure work. And I was fortunate enough to get the job at N.C. State and I came here in fall of ’82.

And been there ever since.

And been there ever since, yeah. Yeah.

Were your first sales, then, along in their somewhere? Short fiction sales?

So my first fiction sale was in 1975 to an anthology called Black Holes that…they paid me for the story, but it never came out, ’cause the publisher went under. It was…as with so many young writers, often you’re selling to marginal markets. You can’t get into the top paying markets, so you’re just trying to get in somewhere. And that actually happened to my first three stories. I sold them to markets that folded before the stories came out.

It starts to make you a little paranoid.

Yeah, I began to feel pretty discouraged. But then, it was in the late…I think it was in the ’70s, ’77, I sold a story to Galileo, and then I also sold one to Fantasy & Science Fiction, a month apart. And what happened was, a bunch of stories I had written already sold, then, one after another. And so…if I said ’80s earlier, I mean the late ’70s was when I really started to break in. So ’77, ’78, ’79, I started to see stories come out.

And then, of course, you mentioned you won the Nebula in ’82.

Cover of September 1982 issue of F&SF, containing John Kessel’s Nebula Award-winning novella “Another Oprhan.”

Right, which was a huge shock. It was the first time I was nominated, and I was a complete unknown, and I think it was quite shocking to people that I won. And of course, the story was…it showed my background. because it’s a story about…your listeners may not know…it’s about a commodities broker who wakes up on page one and he’s on a sailing ship and he doesn’t know how he got there. And it turns out it’s the Pequod, and he’s in the middle of Moby Dick. And he read it… had to read it in college…and he knows that at the end everybody dies except Ishmael, and he’s not Ishmael. So, that that was my premise, and it used my literary study, ’cause I’m a huge Herman Melville fan, but also it had this sort of fantasy element, and it also used my commodities-editing knowledge, so it really came out of a lot of things that were going on in my life. I wrote it in 1979 and ’80, and it came out in fall of ’82, and won the award in ’83.

You mentioned the commodities feeding into that story? Has your astrophysics background played into any of your science fiction writing over the years?

Certainly I know a lot of astronomy and I try to get the science accurate. I know physics, and I’m not any kind of genius at it, but I know basic physics. And so, when I’m doing science fiction stories, I do try to make it as plausible as I can, but I’m not afraid to violate fundamental laws of nature in order to write a story. And I’m not considered really a techie writer, I think I’m more considered a literary science fiction writer. And then I write stories that I think of as fantasies…and when I say that, everyone thinks, “Oh, it’s like Game of Thrones, castles, dragons, you know, lords and ladies. No. I don’t…I’ve never written a story of that sort in my entire career. What I mean by fantasy is a story that violates reality, has some element of the fantastic in it, could be set in the present, the past, but it’s not explained by an appeal to science.

Well, we’re gonna talk about your creative process using Pride and Prometheus as a sort of a template for how you work. But I also wanted to ask you before we did that about…I noted that you had written a play, Faust Feathers. Have you done other playwriting? I’ve done some playwriting and I’m a professional actor, so I’m always curious about that sort of thing. So, have you done a lot of playwriting?

I have done some playwriting. I wrote a one-act back in the late ’80s called “A Clean Escape,” based on a short story I wrote, that was performed here in Raleigh, and I was very pleased to see that happen. And later on I adapted it for a thing called Seeing Ear Theater, which is an audio play thing run by the Sci-Fi Channel. And then I wrote Faust Feathers, which won the Paul Green Prize, and it got produced somewhere in Nebraska but I never got to see it. And “A Clean Escape” actually eventually got adapted for that show Masters of Science Fiction. So, I have written some plays and I did take an acting class, although…I actually am in a couple movies. I’m in a very low-budget movie called The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I play…it’s kind of typecasting, I play an obnoxious college professor who gets murdered. So, I’ve done a little bit of that stuff. But, you know, mostly I have stuff stuck to prose fiction.

I’m always interested in the crossover between fiction and plays because they are very different kinds of writing. In the play world, of course, it’s very much dialogue driven.

Right. It’s very much that’s the case. But there’s also…when you’re writing, you have to cast yourself into the mind of a character who may not be like you in order to write a book. And it seems to me that’s what actors do. You know, the idea that you’re portraying someone who’s not you, but you have to make their behavior rational and to act in a way that they would act but somehow make it your own. And that, to me is a kind of mental trick that writers do as well as actors.

Yeah, I often make that point when I’m talking to people about the two things. All right, well, let’s move on to Pride and Prometheus. And before we get into talking about how it all came about, and your creative writing process, maybe a synopsis and what the book is. I’ve not quite finished it, but I’ve read most of it.

Well, it’s a kind of a crossbreed. I’ve written a number of stories over the course of my career where I’ll use characters or situations created by other authors. “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula, puts my character into Moby Dick. In this story I’m basically crossing Frankenstein with Jane Austen’s character, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And this kind of story really appeals to me in that, in a way…it’s a way of sort of thinking about the story and the characters, the way maybe a literary critic might do it, but instead of doing it in terms of literary analysis, I just want to see, you know, what sorts of situations would happen. Because…

I got the idea for the story from a workshop where we were reading a story by a writer named Benjamin Rosenbaum, a wonderful writer, who had a story that was a parody of Jane Austen. And it occurred to me, as I was talking about this story there at the workshop, that Jane Austen and Mary Shelley were contemporaries. They were…if you went to a bookstore in 1818 in London, you could find Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice, on the shelf next to Frankenstein. And yet they’re very, very different books. And I never, as an English professor, very seldom ever heard anyone talk about Mary Shelley and Jane Austen in the same context. Now, I think they do a lot more, but not back then. And so I thought, “Well, they’re so different.” I mean, you know, putting a Jane Austen character in Frankenstein, that doesn’t work. I mean, that kind of character, what would they do in Frankenstein? And then putting one of, you know, Victor Frankenstein or the monster into a Jane Austen setting, you know, they don’t belong in a ballroom, OK? But that, to me, intrigued me, and so I got carried…and I wrote originally a novelette version of this, I took the character of Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and imagined her a decade or more after the end of that book, and had her meet Victor Frankenstein and eventually meet his monster.

Yeah, and I guess it’s hard to synopses it without sort of…

Oh, well, yeah, it’s…you know, Mary is the…she’s the old-maid character, the middle sister in Pride and Prejudice, who’s really not very attractive. She’s kind of bookish and moralistic, she’s always preaching at people. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s hardly even in the book, and when she’s there, she’s sort of the butt of the joke. She’s the only one of the Bennet sisters who’s not pretty. If you know Jane Austen’s books, they’re almost all about finding the right mate and marrying. And I imagine that Mary is going to have a hard time of that. So, I imagine her as, you know, thirty-two years old and on the brink of old-maid-dom, and she gets dragged to a ball by her mother and her younger sister, Kitty, who’s still trying to get married. And there she meets Victor Frankenstein, who is in England–she doesn’t know this, but–in Frankenstein, Victor goes to England, after he’s created the monster. The monster gets abandoned by him and has a terrible time of it and becomes very alienated, and eventually finds out that Victor created him, and goes to Victor’s home and strangles his younger brother, and then threatens Victor with killing everyone in his family if Victor does not create a mate for him. Since no human being will have anything to do with him, he needs to have someone to give him solace, and so he forces Victor to agree to make a female creature. And so Victor travels to England with his friend Henry–this is all in Frankenstein–and travels around and eventually goes up to Scotland, on an island, to create the female, the bride of the monster.

And so, my story begins where Mary’s at this ball in London and Victor is there with his friend Henry, Henry drags him to the ball, and they dance together and strike up a conversation, and it turns out they like each other. And so, that’s the beginning of it. And the rest of it, it sort of follows Mary’s encounters with Victor. Victor is being tormented by the fact the monster’s following him, and then the monster is desperate to have Victor follow through on his promise. And the story alternates between the points of view of these three characters. It’s mostly Mary’s point of view, but it’s also in Victor’s point of view and also in the monster’s point of view, which, in Frankenstein, that’s true, too, if you’ve read it, both Victor and the creature, his creature get to have their own points of view.

Yes, one reason it was interesting…I mean, I’ve read a little Jane Austen, but I’ve read Frankenstein twice, and I think I read it for the first time–and you mentioned this in an interview somewhere, that it was Brian W. Aldiss who perhaps first suggested that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel–and it was after reading his history of the field that I thought I should read Frankenstein, as opposed to just relying on what we all kind of know from the miasma of Frankenstein stuff that’s around.

That’s right. And, frankly, the image we get of Frankenstein from movies is very much not the creature that was…well, one thing is that people call the monster Frankenstein, and it’s Victor who is Frankenstein. The creature has no name in the book. And so, yes, I wanted to present the monster, the creature–I prefer to call him the creature–as he is in the novel. He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s agile, he’s strong. He’s becomes a kind of…he educates himself remarkably. He’s incredibly articulate. He speaks very well, which is so weird because we’re not used to that from the movies. And so, one of the things that Viktor warns people against when he tells them about these creatures, is, “Don’t listen to him because he’s so persuasive.” That’s really interesting. And he’s sort of a social critic of human behavior. So I wanted to get into that. In a way…

You know, Aldiss did say that this was the first science fiction book, and I had not read it until I read Aldiss, back in the ’70s. and it seemed to me that if Mary Shelley wrote the first true science fiction novel in English, and Jane Austen was sort of the ancestor of the novel of manners…so these are the two great streams in literature, it seems to me, since the early 1800s to the present. We have the novel of the fantastic, the science fiction novel, and then we have the realistic novel like, you know, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, following In the footsteps of Jane Austen. And so, in a way, cramming these two things together in the same book is really sort of unnatural, but also, to me, fascinating.

I read it again…I read it out loud to my wife for the 150th anniversary of the novel, because we have…I read out loud while she’s cooking because our kitchen’s too small for us to cook side by side. And so, it was very interesting to read it out loud, too, and to say that  sort of early 19th century prose, but also the fact that, you know, Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote it, nineteen.

Really, eighteen, nineteen years old. And I think it was published when she just turned twenty, right, so…

And I have a daughter who’s eighteen.

Okay. Actually, it was 200 years ago, 200 years ago in 1818.

Right, 200. Yeah, yeah. I just lost half a century there somewhere. So, you’ve talked about how the inspiration for this came about. Just pulling back from it a little bit, is that fairly typical of the way that your story ideas come to you, things sort of colliding and sparks coming off of it?

Often the collision of two things that don’t fit together is a good way to get a story started, it seems to me. And I’ve written a number of works, as I say, that take off from other literary works, but that’s not all the stuff I write, and so…like, my last novel, in 2017, before this one, was The Moon and the Other, which is a science fiction novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century. Very complex future background, lots of technology, I tried to make it as accurate as I could, showing how people might live on the moon, so that one really comes from a different place. And that’s sort of how it works, really.

But yes, the collision of things…to me, it’s always interesting to have things that don’t seem like they ought to go together put together. Or, another way of putting that is, I really like paradoxes. I like when things don’t easily settle themselves out. You know, where all of the…for instance, all of the morality, or the rightness and wrongness, doesn’t all land on one side. I don’t really like stories where there’s the hero and the villain and  there’s just no…it’s easy to choose between them and there’s no confusion or complication of that way of seeing things.

Once you have the idea, for this novel or other novels, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? And how does it differ from your short fiction writing?

Well, again, it depends a little bit on the project. With novels, I do quite a bit of outlining and sketches and notes. I will try to figure out what the inciting incident is, the beginning incident, and then have some sense of where it’s going in the end. Although, when I was younger, I always had to know the ending before I could start a story, but now I’m more willing to get started without a firm idea of how it’s going to end. Well, one thing with Pride and Prometheus is I had many things given to me from Frankenstein. I knew I was going to follow Frankenstein’s plot. And so, I know eventually that Victor ends up in the Orkney Islands, there trying to create the female. So, that to me was a place I was going to get to. I knew I was gonna get up in the Orkney Islands when he’s trying to create the bride for the monster. How he gets there and how Mary gets involved in it, that was not all worked out.

But then, those things are also given to you. For instance, one of the things that happened was…I think I mentioned that in Jane Austen novels, the spring for many of the plots, or maybe all the plots, is finding the right mate. You have these young women heroines who are maybe attracted to one man, who…or someone is being courted by one man…but it turns out there’s someone else who is really the person they should be with. And finding the right mate is the crucial decision of a young woman’s life in Jane Austen’s period, of her social class, anyway. And so, what hit me was that in Frankenstein, Frankenstein is about a lonely guy, the creature, who can’t find a mate. And so, he has to find a female who will love him. And then Victor’s part in this is, he has to create this female. And in order to do that, he’s going to have to come up with a female body. So I thought, “Well, gosh, you know, that’s sort of scary. He’s going to meet my character, Mary, who’s a lonely old maid, and, you know, what sort of things could happen?” And so this sort of offers certain possibilities of scenes that I could imagine. And if you have certain scenes you want to write in a narrative, you can connect them, connect the dots really, like beads on a string. You know, I know I’m driving from here to San Francisco, and I know I’m going to stop in Memphis and Kansas City and Denver and Salt Lake City, but I don’t know where I’m going in between. And so, you sort of try to arrange those, and you drive your characters, you know your characters, you know your characters, you know what they want, what they don’t want, the circumstances around them. The circumstances will change, depending on what happens in the story, and then, you know, given who they are, the kind of people they are, how would they react to that and what would they do to respond to it? And so, that can help you plot a story out. That seems to me a pretty natural way to create a story.

One of the interesting things about Pride and Prometheus is you’ve got this Jane Austen…and it’s also, it’s three viewpoints. I guess there’s third person for Mary, and then you’ve got two first persons, you’ve got the creature and you’ve got Frankenstein and all of them…the prose is…it seems to me that it reminds you of the prose of Austen and Shelley without being…trying to really get into that very convoluted early-nineteenth-century style where you can have one sentence that goes on for like a full page, almost.

Right. Well, thank you. I actually spent a lot of time thinking about that. And so…I tried not to completely imitate Jane Austen’s or Mary Shelley styles, which are quite different. And it’s right, you know, Frankenstein is written in first person from the point of view of these characters, and Jane Austen’s novels are all in third person. But I wanted to allude to them, so that someone who is familiar with those books would feel that this was reminiscent of that, without being so convoluted that it would be difficult to read. So that was my take on it. I hope I did that well enough. I’m pretty proud of how I did it, actually.

It’s…you know, in a lot of ways, the writing of a book is a process of discovery and you have to–I’ve said this to my students, that when you write any fiction, that it’s a collaboration between your conscious mind and your unconscious mind. And if you have everything planned out like a, you know, an architect, it seems to me you can stifle your imagination, because you have everything all worked out and there’s no discovery involved. So, I think that you have to depend on…at least, the life of a narrative can come from you allowing your mind to ruminate over something that you don’t really know the answer to. And that…Jim Kelly, my friend James Patrick Kelly, says that if the writer writing a story is never surprised by anything that happens, then no reader will ever be surprised. And it seems to me that, you know, to a greater or lesser degree, that there have to be things that you didn’t plan that turn up on the page.

I don’t know what your experiences is, but haven’t you ever had the experience where something just sort of comes to you as you’re writing that is exactly the thing you needed, and you did not know it, but there it is, and it proves to be much smarter than anything you could have thought up in advance?

Oh, yeah, that happens. Happens all the time.

Yeah. It’s funny how that works. It seems to me that our minds are more complex than we can easily understand.

The book I’m writing now, which is the third book in a series of mine, much to my surprise, there’s this long discussion on God’s relationship to time that pops up in one scene, which I had no intention of the two characters talking about at that time. But that just seemed to make sense. So there it is, so far, anyway. So, yeah. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting the way the writing mind works.

What’s your actual physical process of writing? Did you write this in longhand in a notebook like they might have, Austen and Shelley, or do you write on the computer? How do you work?

I’m a computer writer, a keyboard writer. I’ve been writing on keyboards since, you know, 1970 with typewriters. I never…I used to…I’ve done some longhand writing, but very little. Very little. And I know some writers who say that they can’t think unless they’re writing longhand, but I work with a keyboard. I work with a laptop right now, although I have it connected to a big screen at my desk.

I tend to work at my desk in my home office. Although there have been times when I will, when I’m having trouble, I will say, OK, I’m going to go to Panera Bread or Starbucks and sit there in the corner and try to write, and that’s worked, too. So, whatever it takes to get the work done, I think, is what I need.

And when I’m teaching, I have a lot of other responsibilities, so I can’t always write every day. And I’m not one of those…actually, I think one of the things that’s told to young writers that can be very intimidating to them is that you can’t be a writer unless you write every day. And it seems to me that…it’s certainly good to encourage the habit of writing regularly, okay? I think that that’s absolutely true. If you want to write anything of any length or…you need to be…you have your head in the game regularly, all the time. But I don’t write every day and I never have. There’ve been periods where I’ve written every day for, you know, a couple of months, when I’ve had the time to do that or when I’ve been hot on a project and I want to finish it, but there are other times when I, you know, I’ll write three days a week, okay, or I’ll, between projects, be sitting around reading and playing the guitar and watching bad movies and thinking. So my process…I mean, I do have habits that work for me. I try to be regular in them. But, you know, other people say, “Oh, we have to write, you write the same time of day every day.” Well, I generally will try to work in the morning, but it doesn’t always work that way. So whenever it comes to me to work, then I will work. And sometimes I do have to kick myself in the pants and say, “OK, you need to sit down there. You need to close the door. You need to stare at the screen. You can’t look at your e-mail. You cannot go to Facebook. You are a writer.”

Yeah, that’s…I know that feeling. Deadlines help sometimes, too, to motivate you.

I like deadlines. I know George R.R. Martin, I think, is a writer who hates deadlines and sort of fights against them. I am one who,  a deadline focuses my attention, and I like deadlines because it tells me exactly what I have to do. I have to have this done by September 1st, it’ll be done by September 1st. In my entire undergraduate career and graduate career, I don’t think I ever turned in a paper late, because something about it, the idea of being late on it would be worse. I mean, I would just…not so much that I’d get a bad grade, but rather that psychologically I might never get it done if I don’t make it by the date that I’m supposed to turn it in.

What does your…once you have a draft. What does your revision process look like?

Well, I will certainly go over it and make sure it reads smoothly and revise and edit to a degree until I’ve got a fairly polished version of it. But then I will show it to other people who are writers who I trust to give me feedback. And one of them is my wife, Therese Anne Fowler, who is extremely successful. I mean, she’s much more successful than I am. She wrote a novel called Z, a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was a bestseller and made into a TV show on Amazon. And so, she’s a very experienced novelist, and so she gives me feedback. I often talk to her about it over supper. We’ll be working, we’re both writers, and so we’re working and then we have meals together. “How’s your day, dear?” “Oh, you know…” And she doesn’t talk as much about her work as I do, but I often talk about what I’m doing and what the problems are and what’s going on. But then when I get a draft done, I show it to her.

I always ask James Patrick Kelly to read it, and he’s been my faithful critique and critic for, you know, forty years now, really. A very wonderful guy, wonderful writer, so knowledgeable. And other writers who I have regularly…and get feedback…are my friend Richard Butner, who lives here in Raleigh, and Lewis Shiner, a well-known science fiction writer. He lives in Raleigh and we’ve been friends for more than thirty years. Karen Joy Fowler has helped me a lot with my female characters and Gregory Frost…and often actually for a couple of my things, Bruce Sterling, a writer who many people…I mean, back in the ’80s when he was the head cyberpunk and I was labeled as a humanist writer, people thought we would, you know, we hated each other, but that wasn’t the case, even though we disagreed about an awful lot of stuff. But he’s give me some very good readings over the years.

Are there sort of consistent things you find that your readers come back with that you need to…per up?

I usually find, when I have some women readers, that my women characters need attention, OK? And so…I’m trying to do my best. But, you know, I think it’s good to have someone put their eyes on it who has experienced the things that a woman experiences. And so, that to me is a consistent thing that I have had to pay attention to. The editing of…editing things down. I tend to be, in my early drafts, a lot more wordy than I do in the later. As I’ve gotten older, I’m less and less that way, I think. And Jim Kelly has been very helpful with that. He’s a much more efficient writer than I am, and I have to sort of work to get to that point.

What other things? You know, there are sometimes story-logic issues, but generally, my stories, when I get a draft done…I’ve done a lot of time thinking. I don’t write really fast, so it generally has had a lot of thought put into it, and it’s very seldom that I get told something that causes me to drastically change what I’ve written, like the structure or something.

You teach writing. Do you ever find people telling you to do things that you tell your students to do but you overlook in your own writing?

Gosh, probably. One of my colleagues at NC State is a novelist named Wilton Barnhardt, also a wonderful novelist who has given me much, much good advice. He’s not afraid to tell me, you know, but I think as far as the things that I tell my students, it’s not usually so much that, you know.

Well I ask because, you know, I mentor writers. And then when I’m editing my own stuff, I’ll say, nope, there it is, that’s exactly what I told them not to do, and I did it in my first draft.

Well, it’s certainly true that I will make grammar or usage errors that I would complain about to them. I generally…I know the difference between lie and lay, okay, but it’s possible for me to make a mistake there. Or I will sometimes put an apostrophe in its, a possessive its, when it doesn’t belong there.

Yeah, that’s a pernicious one. That just happens sometimes.

Right. It’s, you know, it’s a matter of you writing fast and not thinking.

So once the book goes to the publisher, what does the editing…we should say Pride and Prometheus is from Saga, is that right?

Saga. That’s right? And my previous book, The Moon and the Other, was also from Saga. And that was…my editor there is Joe Monti, who’s is good. I had never worked with them before The Moon and the Other. And actually, I said that I very seldom change structure, but with The Moon and the Other, I sold on the book, and I…he had the whole manuscript. It was finished, you know, before…I thought it was done. And he read it, and we met in New York City, and he said, “You know, it’s a slow start on this book.” It’s a big book. It’s like, 600 pages long, and it’s got four main characters and it alternates point of view between these four characters.

And I said, “Yeah, I know, it starts really slow because I have to do all four characters and they’re in different places, they don’t know each other, it’s complicated.” And so, he said, “Do you know how long it takes before all four characters are introduced?”, and I said, “Jeez, I don’t know. Maybe eighty pages? Seventy pages?” He says, “108 pages.” “Wow. Okay.” And he said, “Is there something you can do?” I mean, he said…also, the first chapter originally was taking place ten years before the body of the book. It was sort of like a prologue. And he said, “Do you have to have that chapter? Can you take it out?” And I said, “I absolutely cannot take out the chapter because it mirrors the last chapter of the book, and there are all these reasons why I just could not do it. There are too many things introduced there that are vital to the storyline.” And then I went home, and I said, “OK, so…” He didn’t say I had to do it, but he said, “Is there anything you do speed up this this book?”

And so I went home, and I thought, “All right, is it possible to take out that first chapter? What happens if I take out the first chapter? There’s things in that chapter I absolutely need. Is there someplace else I could put them?” So, I took the first chapter out, and one thing that immediately became evident is that I would have to rearrange the order of the next six or seven chapters. And so, I did that. And then I had to rearrange what was in those chapters, because the chapters depended on what happened in previous chapters. And then, I had to get the first chapter stuff in there somewhere else. And anyway, it ended up changing the first seven chapters of the book, and considerable revision. And it got much better. I mean, it started much better. And I’m so glad he…he didn’t tell me to do it, he didn’t say, “You have to do this,” but he made me think about it. And it really was vitally important to the book, I think, to do it, to get that chapter moved. And it really made it better.

And I think, you know, new writers sometimes are concerned about the editing process, you know, they’re going to change my deathless prose and all that sort of thing.

Right. Right.

And certainly my experience has been with my editors, Sheila E Gilbert at DAW Books, Hugo Award winning editor, and my experience has been, editors make things better for the most part.

I think they want the book to be as good as it can be. And, you know, you may have some differences of opinion, but it doesn’t help you to be stiff-necked and defensive about things. You know, actually, Christopher, who was in my undergraduate class, was writing the novel…I can’t remember the title of the first novel in the series…but he had it in my, parts of it in my class, and I remember we met in my office one time, and it had a prologue on it, and I felt the prologue was slow to start, and then the first chapter was a completely different situation than the first, than the prologue. And I said, “OK, so you’re opening this story with a frame here. When do you close the frame? Do you close the frame at the end of the book?” Because I hadn’t seen the whole book. He said, “No, I close the frame at the end of the trilogy.” And I said, “That’s not going to work. You need to…if you’re going to have a frame in front of a book, you need to close it by the end of the book. Or at least that’s my strong prejudice. Think about that, okay.” And so, what he did was, he ended up throwing it out. And I don’t know what he did with the material, if it shows up elsewhere, but he changed that. And to me, I thought that was a, you know, I mean, I didn’t make him do it, but that just was my advice for a better opening. And it’s funny, it’s similar to what Joe Monti told me, although it happened before that. So, you know, I guess it helps to be able to listen to things, even if you don’t, in the end, do what the editor says.

Empire of Silence. That’s the first book.

That’s it. Empire of Silence.

Howling Dark is the one that just came out. Well, now we’re getting close to the end, so I want to move to the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do you and I and others write science fiction and fantasy?

Wow, those are tough questions. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone else, but…

For yourself, then.

Yeah. Frederick Pohl, science fiction writer Frederick Pohl, said science fiction is a way of thinking about things, and I like that definition a lot. It seems to me that you can think about things in terms of, in science-fictional terms, the same kinds of things you can think about in a realistic story, but you do it differently. So if you think about, say, marriage, okay, or death or love or parenthood or something like that, in science fiction you can twist things in a way that sort of exposes the workings or…I think of it sometimes as like a lever that you can shove into the machine and pry it open and see the workings in a different way than a realistic novelist or story writer can, so that one of the appeals of science fiction, is that you can…

The very. the fantastic element. to me. should be essential to the story. And in fact, that’s one of my principles, is that. if I could tell this story without the science fiction or the fantasy element, then I should tell it without it, okay? That it has to be vital to the story, has to be essential to make the point I’m trying to make that is in there. So, you know, in other words, I could…

You know, The Moon and the Other started from me watching my daughter at the daycare center when she was a toddler. And I was watching the kids in the playground, the little kids, two, three years old, playing out back. And it seemed to me that the boys’ way of playing was different from the girls’ way of playing. And I started thinking about, “Well, is that inherent or is this culturally determined, okay? When did they start behaving differently?” And so that got me thinking about the difference between men and women–not that I hadn’t thought about it before, but… and I ended up writing this big novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century about gender issues. And yet, another person would have written a story about a father at a daycare center with his daughter and the other kids, you see? But that’s not what I wrote. I wrote a science fiction novel. So, there’s something about that tropism for the strange, or the fantastic, that I’ve always had, and I think I always will.

I think that, you know…why does anyone write? It’s a very good question. I think it’s something about…trying to figure out the world, it seems to me. Or maybe just to entertain yourself or entertain somebody. There’s an element also of sort of showing off, isn’t there? Where you want everyone to admire you. And so…I remember there was a TV production company that did sitcoms and stuff, and at the end of every show, they’d have this little logo and they’d have a kid’s voice that would say, “I made this!” And I always liked that, because a kid makes things just to make them and to be proud, you know, to sort of say, “I made this myself. No one else made this.” And I still have that kid feeling, you know, “No one else wrote these books. No one else could write these books exactly the way I wrote them. Maybe for better, for worse, someone might have written them better, but I made this book myself,” and I like that, you now?

That is one of the rewarding things about it, for sure.

It’s bad when they reject your story and say, “Oh, my God, that stinks.”.

Yeah, there’s that, too.

Yeah.

Well, that’s kind of the end of our time. So, what are you working on now?

I have a novella that I just told you about that is on submission right now that is a weird kind of thing. It’s about the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at a World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York, and it’s also about a trip to the moon in 1901. And it sort of alternates between the realistic historical story and this fantastic scientific romance about the inhabited moon full of Selenites.

I miss that moon.

Yeah. It’s based on a ride that was there at the at the fair, called A Trip to the Moon. It was the first dark ride, if you know what a dark ride is, like at Universal City or Disney World, where they have these rides, you’re in a vehicle and they show you things. So that one’s going out. It’s a kind of political story. I’ve got a ghost story. I wrote my first ghost story and that is on submission right now. And I don’t know, we’ll see what happens with that. You’d think I would have written a ghost story before now, but I didn’t. And who knows? I like to write different kinds of stories. So, you know, if there’s a kind of story I haven’t written yet, I’m thinking, well, what kind of what kind of monster story would I write?

And where can people find you online?

Oh, I have a Web site…and also, there’s a…I have a pretty active Facebook page, which is open to the public and has lots of things on there. You can find things about me. And I’m in the bookstores. Look for Saga books.

OK, well, I think that’s the end of our time, so, thanks so much for being a guest on The World shapers. That was a fun conversation.

Well, thank you very much. I certainly didn’t lack for things to say. I hope I didn’t get too far off the bat.

No, no, it was great. So, thanks a lot, and bye for now.

Take care.

Episode 33: Kameron Hurley

An hour-long conversation with Kameron Hurley, award-winning author of the recently released military science fiction novel The Light Brigade, the short-story collection Meet Me in the FutureThe Stars are Legion, the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, the God’s War trilogy, and the Worldbreaker Saga.

Website
www.kameronhurley.com

Twitter
@KameronHurley

Instagram
@KameronHurley

Kameron Hurley’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kameron Hurley is the author of the recently released military science fiction novel The Light Brigade, the short-story collection Meet Me in the FutureThe Stars are Legion, the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, the award-winning God’s War trilogy, and the Worldbreaker Saga. Kameron has won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the Kitschy Award for Debut Novel, and Sidney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science magazine, Lightspeed, and numerous anthologies. Kameron has also written for The AtlanticWriter’s DigestEntertainment WeeklyThe Village VoiceL.A. WeeklyBitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine, and she blogs regularly at her website, www.kameronhurley.com.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kameron, welcome toThe Worldshapers.

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

I was just saying before we started that usually at this point, when I’m just getting started, I say, “Oh, yeah, well, I met you, you know, this WorldCon or that WorldCon,” but we’ve never actually crossed paths before this.

No, yeah.

So, I’m very happy to have you on. And I just, as I said, also before we started, I just finished reading The Light Brigade last night, so it’s very fresh in my mind.

Excellent.

And we’ll talk about that one primarily as an example of your creative process, but my first step is always…I say this all the time, but I don’t know any better way to say it: I’m gonna take you back into the mists of time and find out how you, first of all, got started being interested in science fiction and fantasy, probably starting as a reader, as most of us did, and then how you got into the writing of it. So, let’s go let’s go way back and then find out how that all started for you.

Way back…yeah. No, I have always had a very vivid imagination, even, I think, when I was in kindergarten, to the point where they would have us, you know, make little storybooks and everything, and I was making this story with, you know, space explorers who went to this strange planet that was blowing up flowers out of the volcanoes and had weird creatures that were crawling around. I had always done stuff like that, and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it, and I got a lot of positive feedback from it. And I think that’s important, too, when you think about encouraging young people, right, with things that they enjoy and are interested in. My teachers and my family were just like, “Wow, you’ve got quite an imagination, Hurley,” and so I started doing that for, you know, just as part of the English curriculum stuff.

And then it just turned out that that was what I started to do after school, as well. It just sort of became my hobby. I, gosh, I think I wrote…I typed out…I remember typing on an electric typewriter at one point, a story of mine, an early one. And I think that about 1994, when I was thirteen or fourteen, we finally got a word processor. And that was exciting—I could I could actually keep an entire book on, like, four or five floppy disks. So that was great.

But I…you know, it was just something that I wanted to do because I had all of these stories in my head, and I loved this idea that I could take these things that were in my head that no one else could see or experience or whatever, and I could communicate that to people. I thought that was really cool. And I think that that just sort of sparked my interest in kind of delving deeper and how do I, you know, create a book that absolutely gets across this feeling the best way possible, right, to people, and that’s totally clear. So, yeah, I’ve been doing it a long time.

Where there are things that you were reading that kind of also sparked your interest in telling stories?

Sure. Yeah. Tamora Pierce wrote a really great series, The Song of the Lioness, which is about a young girl who swaps places with her twin brother and goes off and pretends to be a male knight, and she gets knight training, and then she gets revealed.

I read that one!

But it was cool when I was a kid because I think it was the first time that someone really wrote that idea in a way that made sense to me, where I bought it, right? I was like, “Oh, I can see how this happened.” Of course, you look at history…that would happen all the time. But it was someone who actually did that in a way that felt really cool. And so I think that was some of the early stuff. And again, I read The Phantom Tollbooth and all that. I think we all really start with fantasy and science fiction, right? Like talking animal stories. And it’s just a matter of, you know, do we continue reading or do we kind of veer off in another direction?

I think a real formative moment was, I think again, at thirteen, fourteen, I had a family friend and I said, “Hey, I’m running out of stuff to read.” There wasn’t really a YA category, right, when I was a kid. So it’s like, I was in that weird stage where the younger-people, the middle-grade, books were too young, but the older-people books, I just didn’t even know where to start, because some of…a lot of them were just like, I had no interest in. It was old-people problems, right? And he said, “Hey, why don’t I give you some of my fantasy and science fiction books?” So, he brought to me a paper bag full of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, and the first, The Eye of the World, the first Robert Jordan book. And that, like, really, really, I just loved. Those Dragonlance books…I’d never read Tolkien, so the Dragonlance books were like my Tolkien. I was like, “This is so original and amazing!” you know, at the time. And I really loved it and enjoyed it. And again, The Wheel of Time, I really got into that one. And that sort of was my gateway into science fiction and fantasy, and yeah, I’ve kind of stuck with that ever since.

Now you mentioned that, you know, your family and friends and all that said, “Oh, what an imagination!” That sounds like you were probably sharing your writing with people along the way. You weren’t just keeping it to yourself?

Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. Actually, what I would do is, I would base characters on some of my friends at school, and so they wanted to read it, to know what happened to their character. And I look at some people who have kind of gotten into D&D and stuff like that, and it’s a very similar sort of idea where it’s like, it’s something you can…it’s something that’s very social, so that if you’re not really good at making friends, not very social, which I was not, it was something to talk about, you know, with people. And it was like, oh, you know, “The scullery maid is revealed as the princess!”, you know, stuff like that. And people did, they really liked it. And all of sudden people said, “Oh, Kameron’s writing stories,” and people that I didn’t even think would ever talk to me were like, “Well, I want to be a character in your story.” And so, yeah, it was…it ended being a little bit of a social activity as well.

Hm. I wonder if you put, like, Oprah as a character in your story if you’d get in her book club or that sort of thing?

I know. Right. Right. It’s like that Obama-Biden comic book. I’m sure he was thinking, “Yeah, maybe Obama and Biden will call me.” Yeah. No.

Were you writing just shorter things? Or were you writing…were these like novel-length, or…?

I just writing pretty long stuff. I called them books. I mean, it was 150 pages, was my first one. And then I think, yeah, we got up to about 200 pages for some of the other ones when I was in my mid- and late teens. I probably wrote, you know, eight or nine books before my first book was published, and some of those early ones were definitely, you know, they were…they were book-sized, for sure.

Well, I ask a couple these questions of everybody. And one reason is because, of course, comparing it to my own experience. My first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” so you can see where my mind was. But I wrote these longer works, too. And actually mine…I was calling them books, too. And I thought it was novel-length, too, but I recently got the typed manuscript of the one I wrote when I was fourteen, called The Golden Sword, and I scanned it, word recognition, and it’s only about 38,000 words. And I felt it was like this huge, epic fantasy.

Yeah, it feels, yeah, it feels like this. Yeah, absolutely.

I may throw it up on Amazon as by Eddie Willett, which is what I went by back then. The scary thing is it might sell better than my real stuff. That would be really scary. Were there teachers or people along the way who encouraged you at that stage?

There were! One of them—again, it’s somebody you always remember their names, right?—and one was Barbara Kreinbring, who was like my seventh- or eighth-grade English teacher, and she was very, very passionate about it, very encouraging, loved that I had this thing that I did outside of class that, you know, engaged me and I was interested in and, again, something academic. I was from a pretty small town, too, and I think that there was certainly this, you know, push to, hey, you know, “If you’ve got it, let’s go.” You know, “If you’ve got something, let’s get you out of town!” And, yeah, she was super-encouraging. She’s probably the most encouraging one.

I’m trying to think, kind of later on…later on, you know, in college and stuff, I actually had a writer, David Marusek, who’s a science fiction writer, who was teaching a class, and he was actually the one who told me, “Hey, you need to reapply to Clarion,” the writing workshop Clarion, because I had and I was rejected, and he’s like, “No, no, your stuff really is good enough.” You know, I was doing stuff in this class all semester and he said, “Apply again.” And I went to Clarion later on. and it really was transformative for my writing career, just meeting new people and forcing myself to write a story a week. You know, you do level up like two years in six weeks. And so that was a really good kind of a moment as well.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a town called Battleground, Washington. It’s just north of Portland, Oregon. I think now that they’ve extended the freeway a little bit it’s basically, my mom was saying, I was just talking to her about this, basically it’s become like a suburb of Portland because it’s about forty-five minutes away and there’s no housing in Portland, so it’s like, there’s all this growth. But when I was there, it was like…cows. Which is great! I loved it. We had two and a half acres, I had a great imagination, I wandered around. It was a great place to grow up, it was just definitely a small town.

Well, you mentioned going to Clarion. I want to ask you about that in a minute. But you didn’t actually study writing in university to start with, did you? Your degree was in historical studies?

Yeah, yeah. I considered doing an English degree until I realized that basically what they wanted you to do was just read the classics. And I said, “Well, gonna read the classics anyway, why don’t I do something that is writing-adjacent that will…that I feel like I’m actually learning something.” I mean, one of the things that…and that was, again, that came from a teacher, I do not remember his name, but that was…he was a college teacher, but I was still in high school, I was in community-college classes as part of my high school curriculum…but anyway, he was an amazing history teacher because he’d tell it like a story, and all these wild things, right, that people have done in the past, and what motivates them and all of that, and as someone writing fiction and sort of struggling with, you know, character motivation and where do ideas come from and what are some twists and things, that was really awesome for me to take those notes and be like, “OK, how can I work this into what I’m doing?” And I realized that, “You know, it’s probably going to serve me better to go straight to the source of where all the stories come from,” right, which is our own history. And so that was that sort of leading me more and more…

There was another teacher, again, at the same community college, she was exceptional. I think it was a feminist history course of some kind, and it was amazing learning about…it was wild. So we had a really great time with that one, too. And it just…yeah, it just sparked my interest. And my parents were like, “We’ll disown you if you don’t go to college,” so I had to go to college. But I chose to do something and study something that I found really interesting.

And it has, it’s really changed and transformed my writing, because I’m going straight to the source stuff. As I’ve said, people have said, “Oh, your stories are so weird and stuff happens, it’s so creepy,” and whatever, and I’m like, “You don’t understand, this is sanitized. This is sanitizedfrom actual events.” There’s stuff like…I researched…I spent two years living in South Africa, where I got my master’s degree in history, and I researched all these archives from something called the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which is what they did after the end of apartheid in that country, where people could come forward and actually tell stories of the horrors that had happened under the state, and they would be, they’d be given political immunity. Oh, my gosh. Like, the stuff you read is just…you know, I’d have to stop and take a break, like, just the things that people do to each other. But to me that was a much better way of spending my time, like researching the real world and what has happened, than just reading books, which I was going to do anyway.

It’s interesting. You’re my twenty-ninth author, I think, that I’ve interviewed so far, and… I don’t want to say names because I’ll forget somebody…but you’re about the third or fourth who actually has a history background.

Yeah!

And that does seem to feed into their writing, and clearly it feeds into yours as well.

Oh, for sure.

So how did you—and when did you—break into writing?

Let’s see. I sold…I sold a non-fiction piece, I think, when I was sixteen, to, like, a local newspaper, which was a nice little jolt. I think I got like twenty bucks or something for it. It was like, “Wow, I got twenty bucks!” And you know, my mom cut it out of the paper, and it was so exciting. And then I think I sold my first genre…I started submitting when I was fifteen to genre magazines, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, and I think Intergalactic Medicine Show was around then, and Talebones. And I think my first professional…I sold one when I was, like, seventeen to an online magazine for five dollars. And then I think my first professional story was to Talebones, and that was when I was…twenty, I think? And so, that was the first one where I actually felt like, “Oh, I’m a real writer,” like, “a publication I’ve heard of is pushing my…” And it was great, though, because I met, oh, I forget his name (Patrick Swenson – Ed.), but I met the editor of that publication like, ten years later. I had just published a book, my first book. And he said, “Oh, I love to talk about you, it’s like, ah-ha, I first published Kameron Hurley.” He’s like, “But honestly, the reason that you were in that particular issue was because I had a spot of exactly 3,000 words, and I had a pile of stories that were on the maybe pile, and your story happened to be about 3,000 words.” I said, “God bless you.” Sometimes that’s all it is, right? It’s so funny.

Well, having been a newspaper editor early in my career, I know exactly what it’s like to have a specific space that you need to fill. And I’ve added a magazine since then and, yeah, it’s like, “That one’s a good story, but I can’t use 5,000 words. This one’s not quite is good, but…”

But it fits!

You mentioned selling to the local newspaper and I was laughing a little bit. My first sale I got paid for was to Cat Fancy magazine.

Oh, yes.

They had something called Young Writers’ Corner. When I was thirteen I sold them this terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement. And he found a guy who wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew that he could never work out because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe.

Oh, my God.

And I got paid for that.

And you got paid for that!

So, you know, you take what you can get.

You take what you can get. Exactly. A sale is a sale.

So, you carried on from there. So, were you largely short fiction for quite a while before you tried something longer?

You know, I actually was trying longer stuff. I feel like I’m a natural novelist, so I was writing very long stuff and I think it was from actually encountering other writers. And at the time, you know, the popular wisdom in the genre was, “You need to publish short fiction so that you get known, and then you publish the longer stuff because your stuff will, you know, stand out on the pile or whatever.”

Yeah, I hated that bit of common wisdom.

Oh, man. I hated it. And so I did. So I tried to write short fiction, especially, again, when I went to, again, the Clarion Writing Workshop, they specifically are like, “We would prefer you do a short story, a complete, you know, arc, every week.” And so that gave me a lot of a lot of experience doing that. Again, I think I was twenty when I went to that one, as well. And, yeah, it just…I don’t know. I did a lot of short fiction. I sent a lot of stuff out, and at the same time I was working on longer work, on novels. I think I finally…I sent out a partial, I sent out a novel to several publishers, without…unagented, just to the slush piles, when I was…twenty-two, I think? And, of course, it was rejected across the board and I was like, “Oh, well.” And then I sent out another manuscript again when I was twenty-three, twenty-four, looking for an agent, and all of those are rejected as well. “Well, yay!”, you know, whatever. And again, it’s like I was not having a ton of luck with the short fiction. I sold some stuff to Strange Horizons, again, I had the Talebones sale. I had some stuff to some smaller magazines. I did get into a Year’s Best SF at some point, which was really cool, for one of my Strange Horizons stories, but it just wasn’t…and I could tell, right, that, you know, I could make a short story, but it wasn’t anything special. Like, I look at some of the short story writers who are writing today, Alyssa Wong, Brooke Bolander, like, they put stuff out and everybody’s like, “Ohhh!” The crowd goes wild! And I was not like that. It was just like, well, that was a story. Again, it fits the 3,000-word thing. So I’m like, there’s clearly something I’m missing in short fiction that I was not, you know, it just wasn’t gelling, it wasn’t coming together. 

Whereas I think when I finally wrote my first novel, the one that was actually published—ha-ha, “first novel,” again like the tenth one or whatever—when I finally wrote God’s War, I just was like, “Let’s just put in everything. Since I can, I have the space, I’m just going to throw in bug magic and worlds at war and a desert planet, it’s like Mad Max Apocalypse, I’m going to do all this stuff, and—cutting off heads,” and I did, and I ended up sending it out to, I think, three agents, and one came back and said, “Yeah, I’d like to represent this.” And I was like, “Wow, cool.” And, you know, we sent it out and got tons of rejections.

And here’s the…now, here’s the irony, okay? And this is why I tell people that how I broke in is not how you break in today. It’s all very different. Same thing with, like, Scalzi, you know? How it’s done is very different. But I…so the agent sent it all around, we got rejections across the board, nobody wanted it. And then she gets an email from somebody a…an editor at a house that she’d already sent it to, but she’d sent it to a different editor at that publishing house. Well, this editor said, “Hey, I heard Kameron Hurley is shopping a novel, heard it online somewhere, and I read a short story of hers that I really liked, could you send me this novel? I think it’s weird you haven’t sent this to me.” And she, my agent, was like, “Oh, well, I sent to this other, you know, editor. She didn’t want it.” So she sent it to this editor who had read a short story that she liked, and, yep, twenty-four hours later, we had a three-book deal. And that one eventually…there’s a whole thing with that, that didn’t go through, and there was a bunch of messed-up stuff because that editor was fired, it was 2008, it was a disaster. But it was eventually published somewhere else. But that was…like, my first experience was, “Oh, wow,” And then me thinking, “I guess that short story thing really does work,” though I hate to write them. Oh, yeah.

So, yeah, everybody’s story is different. And I do the same thing, when I talk about how I got in with DAW Books, which is my major publisher, it was almost the “here’s a 3,000-word story that fits,” because they had a hole in their publishing schedule, and I had a book published through Marty Greenberg’s…what was it called…Five Star. And they said, “Well, send over some of your stuff and we’ll see if there’s anything that fits,” and they picked mine. And so that’s how I got in at DAW…they had a hole, and I filled it.

That was what they needed. Yeah, totally.

That was…ten books later, I’m still with DAW, so…I also wanted to mention, going back to Clarion, where did that fall in there? Because one thing I often ask writers about their formal writing training, and I get “hit or miss.” You did mention David Marusek was a teacher, so you must have taken some formal writing classes in university at some point. But I get a lot of hit or miss with authors as to whether formal writing training was helpful or not. It sounds like for you, it was.

For me, it was. And it really would depend. I think I started going to, like, local workshops and stuff from the time I was about fourteen, that’s actually when I started reading Writer’s Digest thinking, “OK, if I really…” Again, when I was twelve, I said, “Wow, I could be a writer. How cool is that?” Sometimes I get really mad when I think, you know, how many years I spent studying writing and how long it’s taken, right, to get to where I am, but I also go to the point where, for some people I feel story and structure and all of that stuff comes a lot more naturally, and others of us really have to start early because we have to work at it. But I did, I had to work it, and a lot of it, that was plot and structure. And actually my current agent has been really great with helping me with plot and structure. But I struggled quite a bit when I first was starting out because I could write sentences and there were characters and people did things, but it wasn’t a story, if that makes any sense, it wasn’t…you didn’t get that feeling of catharsis or emotion at the end of it, it was just like, “Okay, so what?” Which is, you know, what Damon Knight would kind of write at the end of somebody’s story that, he’s like, you know, it just tailed off: “So what?” And I had to learn what, the reason I’m writing the story.

So, yeah, I started out doing some of those, some creative writing classes in college, and what I found with a lot of them is, I felt I was a stronger writer than a lot of those people. And I also found that, you know, still, they’re quite hostile toward genre. I think more so than they are now, but nobody likes science fiction and fantasy. They treat it like you are a little kid or something.

I hear that a lot.

Right? All the time. So I got very frustrated with it, and especially having teachers who clearly had, like, they’d published one poem in a literary journal when they were twenty-five. And I’m like, “Okay, what do you have to teach me?” And I think, yeah. David Marusek was the first…I think by that point he had sold about a dozen short stories and possibly had sold his first novel. But it was someone who actually worked in the genre, who took it seriously, who had been published in it, and I was in a class with other people who wrote genre. And it was really very useful to me because they were not only genre, you know, writers—they were also readers, and it was really nice to kind of get that feedback. And I think that was definitely the jumping off point to…again, as I said, he encouraged me to go to Clarion, and then from going from, you know, this sort of small pool of, “Okay, cool, genre writers,” to, like, professional-level, oh-shit genre writers at Clarion, was really, really…it was kind of…there was this feeling of both awe and fear and…I don’t…I can’t explain it. It was one of those things where I went to the writing workshop, and there were seventeen of us, and some had been to Oxford and Stanford and a bunch of them are…one’s a doctor, and all this stuff…and I thought, at the end of the first few weeks, I was like, “You know, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but I am performing at a similar level to all of these people.” And I think at the time I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to live in a cabin in Alaska, I’m going to write, and I’m not going to…” I wasn’t thinking about all the things I could do with my life. And there was just something about going into that environment and being really inspired and thinking, “These are my peers. Like, I’m not like the lowest person here or the one who just kind of slid in, you know, on my backside. I’m actually writing…I’m performing.” I wrote a short story every week. They weren’t necessarily very good, but I wrote them. Some people didn’t, they weren’t able to do it. I totally get that. But I was there to learn, and I was there to do the work. And I think that there was something about…it’s something about how you approach these experiences and how you decide or not to make the most of them. I think for some people, that kind of environment is not good. It is true. A lot of people can’t do, like, the criticism and the like, the pressure cooker, you know, sort of thing. And there’s, you know, cliques form, I mean it’s six weeks, so it’s like a…ugh, it’s a mess. So some people can’t do it. But I really enjoyed it. I felt it forced me again to kind of push myself and to level up my craft, so…

Well, and your craft was leveled up quite nicely since then, with all these awards and everything. But let’s talk about your craft. So, as I said, I just finished reading The Light Brigade, which came out in March 2019. And so, let’s talk about that one as an example of your creative process. First of all, this isn’t…you know the first question is going to be some variation on, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I’m sorry, but you have to start there. So, let’s put it this way: what was the seed from which this impressive growth sprang?

Well, I have always loved military science fiction, certain military science fiction. I love Conan, too. Now, both of these genres are very problematic in many ways. You know, Conan is a throwback to very racist, sexist times, and a lot of military SF, it’s like people talk about Heinlein, especially like, “Oh, this is just him spouting on about, like, fascism is good.” And I’m like, “I understand that. I also love a lot of things about it.” I think John Steakley wrote a really great military SF novel called Armor, and of course, Joe Haldeman, you know, The Forever War, which is an amazing anti-war novel, which is great.

He was a guest on the program.

Oh, was he?

Yeah.

So, there are some really wonderful military SF titles I really like—Marko Kloos is doing some interesting things as well now—and I, weirdly enough, like, I studied, you know, resistance movements and war for my master’s degree in graduate school. And funnily enough, I was like, “I haven’t written a military science fiction novel.” And we had sold…we had done a two-book deal with Saga Press. One was for The Stars Are Legion, which was a weird-ass feminist space opera, and the second one, it was like, “Well, what do we do now?” And my agent actually came to me and she said, “Hey, you wrote a short story for your Patreon,” ’cause I have a Patreon, which is basically supporting us right now, and she said, “Hey, why don’t you—I really love the voice in that, why don’t you expand that to a novel?” And I said, “Oh, I could do that,” And it was a short story, and I had gotten that initial idea because I love time-travel stories, I love military SF, and I was actually playing World of Warcraft, and there’s this point where you can get between two locations where it actually transforms you into a ball of light, and you sort of follow the ball of light, you know, to the next location, and I thought, “How cool is that? What if you broke down people into light and you, you know, took them to different battlefronts?” And I was like, “Well, so once you start messing with light, then you can start messing with time travel and quantum mechanics and all that stuff.” And so that’s sort of where that idea came from, right, playing World of Warcraft.

We should probably at this point have some sort of synopsis of the book for those who have not yet read it, because otherwise that may have been just a little confusing.

Yes. The Light Brigade is a novel about a disgruntled soldier who signs up to fight a war against Mars to get revenge for her family, who has died, and soldiers are broken down into light to get them to these interplanetary battlefronts. And what she starts to realize, as she experiences this war out of order, is that the reasons for the war are not at all what, you know, they’ve been told they are. So, that’s the journey of the novel, it’s sort of her learning what exactly this war is really about and trying to take control of that situation.

So, that sort of, you know, coming from anywhere…is that how ideas come to you in general? Some people, you know, they tend to start with ae character, or they start with an image or something. It sounds like it can come from anywhere for you.

It can. It can come from anywhere. I think a lot of times, you know, they do start with a character. And then I will actually start with…I’ll start with a character, an idea for a character, and say, “Well, what kind of a world would make that character,” right? And in this particular case, I had this idea…and that’s the thing, too, is that one idea does not make a novel. You have to take a great many ideas. And I can say, “Yes, this…idea of beaming people back and forth, that started it,” but that by itself is nothing. I had to come up with, you know, Dietz as a character, and say, “Okay, what kind of a world will make this person?” And then I had to figure out the structure of the novel, which is a pain in the ass. I had to do all, you know, all these other things, all of the military…

There’s a lot of stories in there that actually come from people that I know who have been in the military, also from a really great book called The Unwomanly Face of War, which is actually an oral history of women who fought in World War Two in Russia. And there, they had a ton of, you know, just first-person accounts of some of these harrowing and heartbreaking and hilarious, also, things, and those sort of also made it into the novel in various different forms. And it all had to come from the media and the books and the writing and all of those things that you sort of soak up throughout the world and your experiences of it, and you then distill it down into a story.

So what does your planning and outlining and all that look like for you? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you…I’m pretty sure in this one you didn’t just make it up as you go, because the structure is complicated.

I tried. I tried the first time, the first time writing it, I sat down, I got to the 40,000-word mark, which was all through the basic, her basic training, and then, yeah, once stuff started going out of order, I…all of a sudden I, it just stopped, and I, you know, called my agent, I said, “Listen, I don’t know how to make this work.” And she said, “Okay, well, tell me what’s going on.” I said, “Well, here’s what I want to happen, but I can’t make it logically happen.” And she said, “Oh, my gosh, you really have made a mess.” And I was like, “Yes, I have. Yes, I have!” Well, it turns out her husband has a Ph.D. in mathematics, he actually teaches in California, and he saw her with a whiteboard trying to figure out, “Okay, how does this, and check the jump that…now they’re back and they’re doing…” And he said, “Oh, well, you just need to…” I don’t know, it’s whatever I said in the back of the book, it’s this, whatever, kind of graph that links these things together. He’s like, “This is okay, you can just use this mathematical equation to make sure that everything is happening in logical order,” and she’s like, “Oh. Oh, great!”

So, we actually sat down, and what she would do is run characters through this graph to make sure that the events as they were happening out of order…because first I had to note how everything happened in order, so I made an Excel spreadsheet of that. Then I would chuck those out of Excel and mix them up, and then I would go to her and say, “Does this make sense?”, you know, just make consistent sense with math. And she’d run it through and be like, “Okay, yes, math says that make sense,” and then I’d go, and I could write the, you know, each section. And it was a matter of me having to say, you know, “Here’s who’s alive at this time. Here’s, you know, here’s what she believed happened last time. Here’s what her squad actually experienced last time.” And I did need to be incredibly detailed and really pay attention to this book in a way that I don’t think I have with any other book.

I was telling my agent, I think it was the third read through of the novel, for the finished novel for me, where I said, “You know, this feels effortless.” And I was like, “How amazing.” Like that….as an author, like, that’s your goal, is to make it look easy. And I mean, you know, the third time I read it through, I said, “It’s at that point where it feels like, ‘Oh, how obvious, you know? Oh, this was easy.’” And again, and still up until, you know, up until we were in proofs, my agent was double-checking, running stuff through, making sure that it all made logical sense, because we knew, with any time-travel novel, we know…and military SF, right?…people are gonna check, they’re gonna re-read it several times and they’re going to check to make sure that you’re right.

So, yes, this was a very different sort of book for me. I think you look at, you know, my first series, The God’s War series, was just, it was a classic quest plot. It was just, it was Conan, it was a female Conan, so it was just like, “Hey, there’s this object of power or person that they need to find,” and they go about, and they have silly hijinks, and they do it. Like that’s, that’s a…I love writing those sorts of plots because they’re just very easy. This was not that…

No math required?

Yeah, no math required, no running it through the graphs. But this one, you know, was a real level up, where it was…I felt like I could say, “I’m writing science fiction now. We used math!” But, yeah, for the most part, with other things I’ll do broad outlines. I used to be almost entirely, you know, a gardener writer, where I would just sort of throw stuff on the page and wander around and I’d have some big set piece like, “Here’s where I want to go and here’s the kind of the big things I want to happen,” but it was just, you know, wandering around. I can’t do that as much anymore because I’m on contract, so what I’ve found is if I try to do that, I end up spending, you know, six times as long editing the book as I would if I do all the work up front like I did with Light Brigade.

Yeah, those deadlines have a way of doing that.

They change your process. It’s a pain in the butt, yeah.

So what does your actual writing day look like? Are you a plant-yourself-at-the-office-chair-and-type-for-twelve-hours-a-day writer, or how does it work for you?

Well, it usually depends. I think my…I’m a binge writer. So, what I like to do is make sure I have big chunks of time. I like to, you know, be sitting at the computer, certainly by about nine o’clock, and I will usually work straight through, with a little break for lunch, until two o’clock or so. By the time it gets about three o’clock, it’s like, my brain is done, I’m done, and I’m ready to do other things, which is great, because then I can spend the early morning hours responding to email, reviewing contracts, and then the later hours doing whatever. So, that’s really kind of the ideal.

Now, does that mean that’s always what happens? No. Right now, I’m working constantly because I’m on deadline. I have a book due Thursday, a big rewrite of some stuff due Thursday, so now it’s like, “Oh, get up at six, type-type-type-type-aaaah!”, you know, and then go to bed late. So, it really depends on where I am in the process. ’Cause there are some other days, you know, once this book is in, I have another book that I’m actually in the research and ideation process right now, and that means going to the library and taking notes and researching things. And that’s a different process. I’m not necessarily making words, but I am preparing to create that outline and flesh that out and get the world in order before I really start it in earnest. And so that’s kind of different mode of work.

Do you ever get lost in your research?

You know, I try a lot more now to stay on target, just like with deadlines, right?

“Stay on target…”

Right, yeah. That’s also, I think, the reason I like to go to the library, because if I’m just like, oh, I’m a hundred percent doing my research online, it’s way easier to lose yourself online than it is in the library, ’cause at the library you have to physically get up, to look for stuff, you have to put this away, do that, so you’ve got to be very clear about…it is much harder to get caught in that. But yeah, if I try and do stuff online, it’s, I feel like, “Oh, it’s been six hours and now I’m watching a YouTube video about basket weaving, how did that even happen?”

So now…I’m presuming you type and work directly onto a computer because you started with word processors when you were a kid, so…

Mm-hmm.

I have talked to one person, I think, who still likes to write longhand, but…once you have your draft, what does your rewriting process look like? Do you have beta readers? Do you just get it done and send it off to your editor? How does it work for you?

At this point in my career, my agent is basically my beta reader. In fact, she is involved…again, I talked about working with structure, she’s very analytical and very much involved and hands-on from the early draft stage…so, when I finish a draft, I usually send it to her first. Occasionally we’ve had ones where, you know, it’s due to the editor and I’ve got to send it to them both at the same time and I just ran out of time, but for most of my work, yeah, she reads the first draft, she gives me her first big batch of notes, I rewrite it based on her notes—that’s usually when the big structural stuff happens—send it back to her, she reads it again, I clean up any last little things, and that’s when it goes to the editor. And that’s ideal, right? But sometimes it just goes straight to the editor, in which case, yeah, then I just end up having…

Like, this last book, The Broken Heavens, which is the third in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga…that one is so late, and so it ended up going to my editor and to my agent at the same time. They both read it and I had to incorporate both of their comments—sometimes contradictory, so it’s like any other way of taking notes, some of the times you’re just like, “Well, which one best fits my view of the novel and the way the novel should be. Do I agree with them?” and throw them out if you don’t like them. And then again, I just sent it back, and I got the notes back again, fewer notes every time from my agent and editor at the same time. And so, I work on those.

But yeah, I worked with beta readers for my first series, and I think after my first series, the issue became, you know, a lot of my first readers were from my Clarion class, and over time we all became professional writers, and then none of us had time to actually read each other’s books. We didn’t have time. And by the time I had a draft finished, it was already…there would only be, like, a week before it was due to the editor, and that wasn’t enough time to give them time to read it, so, it just…that just kind of fell by the wayside. But early on in my career, yeah, I did have beta readers.

See, I basically never did. I pre-date the Internet, when I was getting started, and I didn’t have any friends…well, that’s not quite true…but I didn’t have any, you know, people that were going to be any use to me. So I’ve always just kind of gotten it written and sent it off to an editor. It’s kind of the way I’ve always worked. Before you send it to your agent, what does your personal rewriting look like? Or are you perfect at the end of your first draft and ready to send it off?

Ha-ha. That’s only John Scalzi is that way. It drives me crazy.

He was, like, my second interview, so I remember him saying…

Oh, my gosh, yeah, no, he drives me crazy. But no, I…some of it is…I do, I revise as I go, but a lot of times when I finish something, I do go back and say, “Okay, what are…were there any notes I made…”, see, sometimes I’ll make notes along the way, “Hey, remember to go back and fix that, remember to go back and do this,” and I will go back and I will kind of fix those things up. But, you know, more and more I do…because I am writing to deadline…I wait for my huge edits until my agent sees it. And then I incorporate my edits and my agent’s edits into it, to be like, okay, kind of a gut check, like the things that I thought were wrong, “Oh, look, she thinks are wrong,” or “Oh, she didn’t even think about that.” So, yeah. And I do, I try to take…when feedback comes in, you know, I try and take the small stuff first and get all the small stuff done, and then look at the bigger ones. “Okay, now we have to go through and fix these large sections. This motivation doesn’t seem right, you know, this sequence of events is messed up.” So, I do kind of try and keep track while I’m writing of all the things that I need to address on the next pass.

And yeah, then I’ll go through, I will read it through, address those things. I’m not terribly worried about, like, word choice and things like that. I will spellcheck it at that point, but I wait to really layer on, you know, worldbuilding stuff and work on sentence-level things once I’ve gotten all of the feedback from my editor and my agent, because I found if I try to work at that level first off, a lot of times it takes a lot longer, and then it might turn out that I have a big section that I spent all this time on that in fact needs to be deleted completely. So, I’d rather make sure all of that big structural stuff is in there—in fact, that’s what I’m doing for Broken Heavens right now—all the big structural stuff is fixed, and then I go back, layer on worldbuilding, layer on character stuff, go to the sentence level and say, “OK, let’s clean this up, let’s make this a little bit more poetic,” and that’s the point at which I really start…again, now it is a polish. It’s really shining it up right before it goes to the copy editor.

My final sentence revisions usually happen when I’m doing a public reading and I come across something I wish I’d changed before it got into print.

Oh, yes, we all have that. “What did I do?”

Yeah, it’s funny. Well, it’s not funny, it’s kind of sad, really, but it happens. Well, that’s the novel we were talking about. I also wanted to mention the short story collection that’s just come out. Where do the short stories come from? How did you assemble this collection? You said you don’t write a lot of short stories? Are these all previously published? Are there some unpublished ones in there? It’s called Meet Me the Future.

Yes. Meet Me in the Future. So, two years ago, I think, I started a Patreon. And a Patreon is where my fans can sign up and they get subscribe for a buck a month and get a short story for me. And yes, I’m like, “Oh, I hate short stories, to write short fiction.” Well, when you’re writing short fiction every month for two years…

They pile up.

You do get better. Yeah, you do get better. It’s amazing. But it was really cool, because, I mean, at this point, I was laid off from my day job a few months ago, and so Patreon and my book earnings are basically what we’re living on right now, and, you know, when you have to pay the bills with it, it’s very easy to write a short story. So, I had been doing that. Yeah, I had quite a few lined up for the last two, two and a half years, and what I did is…and I also took some much older stuff, again some of those old Strange Horizonsstories, some other ones that ended up in anthologies. It’s really a “best of,” and it was me taking the best of the Patreon stories, the best of my older stories, and then I basically presented over 100,000 words of these to Jacob (Weisman), the editor at Tachyon Press, and said, “I don’t know what to do with these, you tell me which ones are best. You tell me what you think is good and what order it should go in.” And he read through them, and he’s like, “Wow, this is like…there’s so many, They’re all so great.” And he picked out the ones that he thought were the best. He ordered them in the way that he felt made sense again. Again, he’s an editor, he does it all time. And it’s getting really great reviews, it got two starred reviews, and people have been really happy with it, which is great, again, for someone who’s like, “I don’t know how to write short stories.” It turns out that if you apply…like again, my whole career, if you apply yourself and you work really hard at it, you know, you can get better. And I think that that’s, you know, this short-story collection especially is a really good example of how, you know, doing something over and over again, but with the intent of excelling and getting better and studying, can pay off for sure.

Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, and this is where I like to get the big philosophical questions. (See, my voice even goes deeper when I say that, “The big philosophical questions.”) And it’s not that…well, it is a big question, really. It’s, “Why do you write and why do you think any of us write?” and concurrently, “Why do you write this crazy stuff?”

I write to change the world. That’s all. I enjoy exploring ways that the world can be really different. And that’s something Joanna Russ actually had said in one of her essay collections. She realized science fiction was the place where she could actually explore how things could be really different. And something about that really struck me, and I really identified with it, because I felt I was writing, especially when I first started, I was writing the fiction I wanted to read then that I wasn’t seeing. And I like, yeah, I kind of grew up in the age of the New Weird genre movement, and which is really strange, really strange, and it’s weird stuff. And I love that stuff because I believe it gets us to think about the world differently. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and kind of pushing that envelope and having people think about the world a little bit differently is really a powerful thing. And I think…my day job, work, you know, the last, like, fifteen years, has been in marketing and advertising, and one of the things that marketing and advertisers know is that stories, and emotional stories especially, can change people’s behavior. You can get people to buy your toothpaste and wear seatbelts or not and smoke or not, and it’s really powerful. And I think they understand that in a way that some other folks don’t.

I think even in genre that sometimes we don’t understand, really, the power of our stories. One of the things that Geoff Ryman, an author, told me the second week of Clarion, he said, “You know, we have to take responsibility for the images that we put on the page, whatever those images are, because they are part of the storytelling, storytelling world that we come from, and that’s how we are each building our own consciousness.” So, I write because I like to show people how it could be different, for better or worse.

I was gonna say, the world of the The Light Brigade is not one for the better.

It’s not a great one. It’s not a great one. It is ultimately, I feel, a hopeful book, but it’s certainly, you know, yeah, it turns around and shows us, you know, a mirror image of certainly some of the things that we deal with now, for sure, so…

A little out of order from my questions, but I meant to mention back when we were talking about it that when I got into it and where the time shift starts happening, I kept being reminded of Gene Wolfe’s book, Soldier of the Mist.

Oh, yes.

With, you know, the soldier who forgets day to day unless he writes things down. A completely different book in almost every way, but that was something that kind of struck me as a similar kind of thing. And I guess that kind of ties in. I mean, science fiction is often said to be a field that’s constantly in conversation with itself. And I think you mentioned that earlier about, you know, you were reading Conan, and then you wrote a feminine Conan, a feminist Conan. Do you feel that you are a part of this great conversation of what’s come before and what might still be coming?

Oh, gosh, absolutely. And that that to me, again, is what so much of Light Brigadereally was. And I think it really depends…a lot of people have asked me, “Oh, can you write down, you know, all the call-backs and Easter eggs and stuff in Light Brigade?” I said, “No, I can’t,” because some of those are actually just in there for specific people. But it’s a book that’s absolutely in conversation with, you know, all those older military SF books, which I think a lot of people really got in there like, oh, here’s our military SF book for this decade. I’m like, “Yeah, see?” It really is, you know, kind of my riposte to a lot of those books.

And it’s in conversation, certainly, with a lot of those books, with Forever War, with Armor, with, you know, Starship Troopersand all the rest. And I don’t think you can say that your work isn’t, unless you don’t read. I mean, if don’t read the genre, then sure, it’s probably not. But one of the things that I actually love about writing genre is that there is still an established…there’s sort of an established community and a discussion of, you know, that we all have about the work, and that you can actually kind of contribute to that conversation as a writer if you’re kind of plugged into it. So, I do appreciate that. I like it because it feels like…you feel like you’re building on something, right? Like, you’re all building toward something. And no one knows what that is, but everybody is contributing to it. And no matter how much one will try and get away from whatever thing in the past, like, influenced all this other work, it’s like, if you are influenced by someone who is influenced by someone who is influenced by someone, you’re part of that kind of timeline. I don’t know. I find it interesting.

So do I. And I guess that’s one reason I got into the field as well. Although I predate you by some time, when I was doing all my reading and writing. Well, what are you working on now? I mean, we’ve mentionedThe Light Brigade, which came out in March. The short story collection is out now.

Mm-hm. Yep.

What’s coming next for you?

Next up, in January of 2020, is the third book—third and final, whew!—in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga. That’s called The Broken Heavens. And then I actually just sold a book called Losing Gravity, which I pitched to my editor as “Killing Eve meets Die Hard in space.” And he loved that, and the movie people loved that, too. They called immediately.

That’s an elevator pitch.

And I said, “There’s no book! There’s no book yet, guys. That’s a pitch.” So I now have to write that book. So, that’s the stuff I’m doing research and stuff on now while finishing up edits on Broken Heavens.

We haven’t mentioned your non-fiction writing, but you do a lot of columns and that sort of thing. Is that continuing?

That is, that is. I do a column for Locus Magazine every other month, and I also do an essay for Patreon subscribers every month. Occasionally, I do still do stuff when I am, you know, someone pitches me and wants me to write a column. It depends on, really, my schedule, so…

And finally, where can people find you online?

Best place is probably Twitter or Instagram. And that is @KameronHurley, and that’s Kameron with a K, and then, of course, my website, which is KameronHurley.com.

Ok. Well, I think that we’ll wrap it up. So, that was a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Great. Yes. Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 32: Fonda Lee

An hour-long conversation with Fonda Lee, author of the Green Bones Saga (Jade City, winner of the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Jade War, just released, and Jade Legacy, in progress, all from Orbit Books), as well as of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.

Website
www.fondalee.com

Twitter
@FondaJLee

Facebook
@fonda.lee.94

Fonda Lee’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Fonda Lee

Fonda Lee is the author of the Green Bones Saga, beginning with Jade City, which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and continuing in Jade War, which came out in August. Book 3, Jade Legacy, is currently in progress. She is also the author of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.

Fonda’s work has been nominated for the Nebula, Andre Norton, and Locus Awards and been named two best-of-year lists by NPR, Barnes and Noble, Powells Books, and SyFy Wire, among others. She won the Aurora Award, Canada’s National Science Fiction and Fantasy Award, twice in the same year for best novel and best young adult novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black-belt martial artist, and action-movie aficionado residing in Portland, Oregon.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Fonda, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thanks, Edward, it’s great to be here.

Now, we kind of almost crossed paths last year at When Words Collide in Calgary, which is where you were born, right? You were born in Calgary?

Yes. Yes.

Was that your first time at that convention?

No, I’ve been to that convention a few times and I’m gonna be there next year as the guest of honor. I still have family in Calgary, so it’s always a great opportunity for me to combine visiting family with making it out to When Worlds Collide.

Well, I always like to plug When Worlds collide because it’s such a great event. We go every year.

It is, yeah. I like the fact that it’s it’s a great size. It’s not too huge, but it’s still very vibrant. And I like the fact that it’s very much modeled after an SF con, but it is cross-genre, and so I always end up seeing some panels and talks about mystery and thriller and romance and other genres besides my own.

Even poetry pops up.

Yeah.

Yeah. I like it a lot. And so, since I have plugged it now, we have plugged it, we should mention that the website for it is whenwordscollide.org. It’s capped at 750 or something like that, or 500, I don’ remember what it is.

Yeah. And unfortunately, I won’t be there this year because I’ll be traveling in Ireland before Worldcon in Dublin, but I will be there next year and I’m always happy to make it over there when I can.

Will you be at World Fantasy this year in Los Angeles?

Unclear. Still up in the air. I’ve got a bunch of travel for the rest of the year, so I’m trying to parse it out so that I’m not totally overloaded. I actually have to write a book sometime this year.

That’s such a nuisance, isn’t it? All these other things you can do, and then, oh, yeah, you’ve still got to write the books.

That’s right.

Well, and speaking of writing books, we’re going to talk primarily about the Jade–I guess it’s called the Green Bones Saga, is the name for the series. I am reading Jade City. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read quite a bit of it, so I have a good sense of the setting, and I’m enjoying it very much. And Jade War is…is it out now? This is July 15, I guess, when we are conducting this conversation. Is it out, or is it coming out later this month?

It is not out quite yet. It comes out next week. We are one week away from release.

Well, it will definitely be out when this goes live, so…

Yes.

So, we’ll talk about that and how it all came about. But to start with, I always take my guests back into the mists of time–further back for some of us than others, and my mists of time are starting to get quite far back–to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing science fiction and fantasy, and secondly, how you started writing. You were born in Calgary, but I know then that you moved to the States, so how did that all work out and when did writing kick in for you there?

Yeah. So, I wanted to be a writer when I was quite young. I think I was probably around ten or so. And I was a voracious reader as a child and loved to make up stories. So, at some point I told my parents, “I want to be a writer,” and I think they said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and patted me on the head and encouraged me to get a real job that would allow me to support myself as a functional adult when I grew up. And so, over the rest of my childhood, writing was something that I still loved to do. I always was doing it in my spare time. I had an extremely boring and long forty-five-minute bus ride to school and then another forty-five minutes back, and did not have, at that time, Gameboy or an iPad and whatever else that kids have these days to distract themselves. So, I had a very large pad of paper and I wrote a novel. So, my first novel I wrote when I was in fifth grade, and it ended up being 300 pages of handwritten prose about a young dragon and his motley crew of assorted magical forest friends on a quest for a magical amulet. That was my very first novel, which is possibly still bound with elastic bands in my parents’ attic. I then wrote a second novel when I was in high school that was a pulpy superhero saga, where I cast all of my classmates into this story about cyborgs and superheroes and nefarious corporate tycoons, and printed it out as a graduation gift to all of them. I wrote it, co-wrote it, with a classmate of mine during biology class by passing a graphing calculator.

What do they call that? Tuckerization. when you use real names in your book?

Yes. So that was that. And then I…I didn’t really think that writing would ever amount to more than that for me. I went off and got a business degree, and then an MBA, and I worked in management consulting and corporate jobs and eventually ended up…well, lived in Toronto for a while, then ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, to work at Nike, which is located here. And it wasn’t it until I was in my thirties when I kind of had this epiphany that I wasn’t writing anymore because I just gotten way too busy. I had a full-time job, I had two small children, and writing had just completely fallen off to the wayside. And that’s when I realized, “Wow, something really feels like it’s missing in my life and I need to get back to what I really enjoy.” So I took writing much more seriously than I ever had before and made changes to my work schedule, to what my priorities were in life. And then, once I did that, I was like, “No, I’m in it 100 percent. I want to be published and I want to make this my career.”

Well, you mentioned that you were a voracious reader. What were some of the books that you read that… because clearly you were reading the kinds of books that led you to write your first story as a fantasy.

The Book of Three, Book 1 of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain

Yeah. So, I was a fantasy/science fiction reader from the start. I loved…The Chronicles of Prydain was one of my favorite early books. I read Monica Hughes. I don’t know if many readers remember Monica Hughes books. She was a Canadian science fiction author.

I do!

Yeah! Devil on My Back was a book I really loved when I was a kid. I read, well, Narnia, of course, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, all of those books. And I also loved animal stories. I read, like, all of those Black Stallion books.

Devil on my Back by Monica Hughes

Oh, me too. You know, I always like to point this out. Walter Farley actually wrote science fiction in the that arc with…the Island Stallion books actually have a science fiction twist.

Yeah! Yeah, so I loved those stories as well. So, I graduated later on in my teens to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, all of the science fiction/fantasy greats at that time. So, I’ve been very much in this genre as a fan since the start.

Well, those are all the same books I read, which…and I also wrote my first…well, I didn’t write it, I didn’t write my novel quite as young as you, but you were mentioning it, and I just happened to have it on my desk, my first novel, which I wrote when I was fourteen. And you were…yours was 300. Mine was only 201 when I hit THE END, so you outdid me. And it’s in a binder that says “Eddie Willett, Algebra,” on the front of it.

Oh, that’s great. It’s an artifact now.

And it has little drawings of race cars on it. I sometimes take it to school readings to show off. So, how did the first…was the first book you wrote trying to get published, published, or did you have some false starts along the way? How did you break in, I guess?

I wrote a practice novel that I knew would not be published, but I just wanted to teach myself how to write a novel. So, I wrote a novel that never saw the light of day at all. Then I wrote a young-adult fantasy novel that I wanted to see published and I began querying it after it was done. It went through quite a few rounds of querying and it picked up some interest from agents, but nothing…but it didn’t go anywhere beyond that. And while I was querying that novel, I wrote Zeroboxer, which would become my debut. And I took that novel, as well as the one I had been querying previous to it, to a writing conference here in Portland called Willamette Writers. And I didn’t really know which of these projects I should pitch, but Zeroboxer was hot off the press, I had just recently finished writing and revising it and felt like it was in shape to start being sent out, so I pitched that, and I got a lot of agent interest. A number of agents said, “Send me the manuscript right away.”

So at that point, I sent out queries to those agents as well as others that were on my list, and within a couple of weeks in offers of representation, I signed with my agent now, who…I’ve had him since the start…and we did a round of revision, took it out, and within three months we had an offer. So, between me finishing that novel, that would have been August…that conference would’ve been August of 2013. And we had a book deal in December of 2013. So when it happened, it happened quickly.

It doesn’t happen that way for everyone.

I know, it’s funny, because publishing often does feel like it’s slow, slow, slow, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Then it happens and it’s like, boom, all these things start cascading.

Well, I often ask authors if they showed their work to people when they were starting out, but clearly you did, since you wrote with a classmate and put all your classmates in it and gave it to them as a graduation present. And the reason I asked that is because it’s…for me, that was when I kind of discovered that, “I’m writing stories that people actually do enjoy reading.” Did you have any formal creative writing, training or anything along the way? Or were you just…you read and then you wrote, which is what I did, so I often ask that question, too.

Yeah. So, I did not, when it came to formal educatio. In fact, I regret that fact, because when I was in college, I took an English class, and then I think…I probably took a couple of English classes that were required. But I also had finance and accounting and marketing and all of those. And my English classes were…the English department was sort of against giving out As to what no matter what I did, I would always get, like, a B-plus, sort of regardless of, you know, the quality of whatever essay I was writing. It seemed like everyone in the class got somewhere between like a B-minus and a B plus. So, you know, academic overachiever that I was, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to have this dragging me down.” So, I ended up not taking future English classes in in the latter half of my undergrad except for one class that I couldn’t resist. And that was a class on the history of science fiction. And I ended up doing a term paper on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we read stories by Sawyer and Bradbury. And that was, of all the classes I have taken…I don’t remember a thing from Finance 101, but I remember that undergrad science fiction class.

But, in terms of craft of writing, once I started getting serious about it as an adult, I took an online writing class through continuing-ed classes, I applied and got into the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop–which I’m going back to this year as a faculty member, which is pretty cool. And those were ways for me to get into, first of all, the discipline and habit of writing and treating it really seriously and improving my craft, and also a way to meet other writers and find a community and get validated that, yeah, like, “This is this is really something I could do and want to do.”

Have you ever had any writing groups that you belong to, like critique groups or anything like that, that some writers have?

Yeah, I have…actually my Viable Paradise classmates. I’ve asked them to read for me on occasion. I have a beta reader group. So, I don’t have a critique group that follows the model of meeting once every couple of weeks or every week to share small pieces. I need to write my novels in isolation and I don’t show them to anyone until they’re in pretty decent shape. So, I’ll go for a year or more without showing my work to anyone. And that’s…especially with these novels, thay’re so long. So, I need to write by myself and get it into…see the whole shape of it first. And then I will send it out to beta readers. I’ll have a few people read it and I’ll send it to my agent and he reads it before it goes to my editor.

Well, we’re going to focus on the Green Bones Saga as an example of your creative process, but I did want to mention your earlier books, too, because you started in YA, and now you’re writing adult. And I’ve kind of crossed that divide myself, and back and forth, and sometimes there seems to be…and I was reading an interview with you in Locus, actually, and you were talking about this. There can be a kind of a confusion sometimes if your voice is YA, but your story is more adult, and I think you mentioned that in connection with Zeroboxer, and I’ve run into that, as well. So, what in your mind is the difference between writing YA and writing adult, and how do you go back and forth between them?

So…over the years it’s clarified in my mind that young adult is very much about voice and perspective. I don’t approach the writing of my YA novels differently than my adult novels, process-wise, the same amount of work goes into developing the world and the characters and the storyline. But with my young adult novels I have…I’m conscious of wanting to make them much tighter in terms of the perspective and making sure that that teen mindset, that teen voice, is there, because you can have any number of things going on in a YA speculative fiction world.

Exo is a good example of this, my duology. It has not just global stakes, but interplanetary stakes, where there’s a war between alien races and Earth is potentially caught in the middle, and there’s…entire human cities get demolished. So, it is very…it’s the same stakes as you would find in any big space opera. But it is very focused on the main character, this seventeen-year-old guy named Donovan, and everything is filtered through his experience and him trying to figure out what he should do, what his responsibilities are to his friends, his family, his cohort, to humanity. And that is, I think, the defining characteristic of young adult, is that, no matter what’s going on, it is still about the teen character.

And a good example of this is Hunger Games. Hunger Games…by the end, Katniss is leading a revolution against the capital, but it doesn’t zoom out like an adult novel might and go to whatever political machinations are occurring in the glass towers of the capital. It’s always with Katniss and her situation, her romantic tribulations and her struggle to survive and so on.

So, with my adult fiction, I feel a lot more free to expand the perspective and the scope. And that was certainly the case with the Green Bones Saga, because I knew from the start that it would be a family saga, and that it wasn’t about one character, especially one teen character. It was going to be a cast of characters, different ages. Their relationships were gonna take center stage. The world was going to be a very…there was gonna be a lot of stuff happening in different places. So, from the start, it was pretty clear to me that it was an adult novel. And my very first novel, Zeroboxer, I think could have gone either way. And that was..it ended up being picked up by a young adult imprint and published as young adult, but looking back on it, it could have gone either way. And now I’m more cognizant of deciding early on, figuring out early on what type of story this is.

See, what happened in my case was my…I wrote under the pseudonym E.C. Blake–who was a guest host on here and interviewed me–E.C. Blake interviewed Edward Willett in an earlier episode of the podcast. E.C. Blake wrote a fantasy trilogy, Masks of Aygrima, with a fifteen-year-old female protagonist. And it was always conceived as a YA book in my mind. But DAW wanted it, and DAW doesn’t have a YA line, so it was published in the adult fantasy market. And I got it from two directions, with people saying, “Oh, this read like a YA book”–well, yeah–and others saying, “Well, this is too adult for my YA readers.” So, yeah, I’ve been caught like that too. And the funny thing is Worldshaper, my latest novel from DAW, is up for a…well, it’s longlisted for the Starburst Award for best young adult novel.

Congratulations?

Yeah, but there’s not a teenager in the entire story. The main character is in her late twenties, and I still don’t know how it ended up being considered a YA novel. So…

Well, there is a grey zone, certainly, there’s kind of this blurry line, and what I see is a lot of young adult conventions filtering up into adult fiction. There’s more adult spec-fic these days that features young protagonists that kind of adopt some of that YA pacing and tone. So, there is certainly a gray zone in between there, but eventually, at the end of the day, your book has to sit on a shelf somewhere and the publishing powers that be need to be able to tell the buyers at bookstores this is where you’re your book is going to sit.

And the young adult’s over there, and the adult’s over there, and they’re two different things.

Right.

Well, let’s talk about the Green Bones Saga. Well, first of all, perhaps a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to give away, because if I talked about it, I might give away something you don’t want to give away so you synopsize it, and then we’ll go from there.

So, the Green Bones Saga is a modern-era epic urban-fantasy gangster-family saga that I have on multiple occasions described as The Godfather with magic and Kung Fu. It takes place in a…

That’s pretty much I would have described it, so…

It seems to work for people. You know, it’s nice when you can encapsulate your book in a couple of sentences, because you get asked to do it quite a bit. So, it is set in a secondary world on this fictional Asian-inspired island metropolis called Kecon. And what distinguishes this island is that it is the world’s only source of magic jade. And this magic jade is this resource that the Keconese people have long had to themselves. And it gives those who wear it these superhuman abilities that are not unlike superhuman abilities you might see in Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu-movie martial-arts heroes. So they can…they have enhanced strength and speed and perception. And they can, not exactly fly, but they can, you know, jump great distances.

So, they have over time developed this warrior caste called the Green Bones. And the Green Bones can use jade, but not without cost, because it’s not like anyone can use it, they have to train for a very long period of time. And if you have too much jade or you’re too sensitive to it, bad things happened, including madness and death.

So, the story follows one of the two clans that ostensibly rule the city. And these two clans used to be united back when they were patriotic organizations that fought against foreign colonialist powers, but have since become rivals. And the No Peak clan is one of these clans, and it’s led by a family called the Kaul family that has this aging, bitter patriarch who has four grandchildren. And the story is really about them. The brother Lan is the head of the family now, and he has a younger brother, a younger sister, and they have an adopted sibling. And clan war is looming on the horizon. And one thing leads to another and all hell breaks loose. So that is pretty much the summary of Jade City. And Jade War

I think the title gives something away there.

Yeah! So, Jade War is the second book, and it expands on a lot of the things that happened in Jade City and takes this conflict between the clans and then sees it become an international one on the world stage. So, that pretty much sums it up. You know, it’s very much a mash up of things that I’ve loved. I’m, you know, a big fan of. of Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu films, gangster movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and epic fantasy. So, all of those came together and and became this mash-up in my mind that I created in the Green Bones Saga.

Was there…and I guess this applies to all your novels..is there a kind of..do ideas come to you in sort of the same way, is it like an image, or something you’ve read, or two ideas banging together? Or…how do how do stories begin for you? And how did this one in particular begin?

Yeah, so, stories come to me in different ways. With Zeroboxer, it was the storyline that came to me first, the plot came to me first. With my young adult duology, Exo and Cross Fire, the character came to me first. And with the Green Bones Saga, it was the world.

So, this story came to me actually as just the premise of this magic jade and the aesthetic that this world would be, this kind of gangster fantasy. And the first thing I wrote down in my writing notebook was Jade City, was the title. So, that was the first spark. And I wrote Jade City, and then I wrote, “Modern-era world where combat is hand-to-hand. There’s guns and cars and so on, but power rests with those who have magic jade.” And that was it. I had no plot, I had no characters, I had nothing. I just had that idea. And then it sat in my notebook for a very long time. And like many good ideas, it accreted material around it like a piece of sand in a oyster shell, until I had enough to grasp onto it and then start turning it into a book.

Well, and what does that process look like for you, when you start building on the initial idea? How do you then develop a story, and do you end up doing a detailed outline, or are you more of a “let’s just get started and see what happens” kind of writer?

I do write an outline. For me to start writing. I need to know the beginning, I need to know the end, and I need to know some of the big turning points in there between the beginning and the end. And I won’t start writing until I have that. And I will do at least two to three months of just research and brainstorming. And for every book that looks different, but it involves a lot of reading and just absorbing as much information as I can that will help me in that creation process.

What are the things you researched for Jade City?

So, I did everything from, you know, watch a lot of Hong Kong crime dramas to read up on the gangs of New York and the history of the Italian American Mafia and Cosa Nostra, and articles, non-fiction articles about the Yakuza and the Triads and, you know, everything. And oh, jade mining, you know, drug production and smuggling. Anything that I knew would kind of have some bearing in this fantasy world. So I kept a notebook. I have a Scrivener file where I’m just dumping loads of research, and I’m just collecting a lot of stuff and seeing the connections and figuring out how that works. So, for example, you know, I’m seeing connections between…how the Italian-American Mafia family structure could be combined with, like, the flowery titles and ranks used in the Triads. “OK, I like both of those ideas. How am I going to work those into the story?” So, things like that.

And then I will do a lot of just free writing, outlining, writing, like character, little profiles of characters. And then at some point I feel like I have enough of an outline. The outline is helpful to me only as a safety net, for me to feel like, “Oh, I can finally start writing,” because I know that it will change. I know the outline is most likely not going to stay the same. But I have it to at least get started. So, then I set everything aside, close all the research files so that I’m not tied to them, I’m just keeping them in the back of my mind. And then I start writing.

You mentioned doing character profiles. What do those…well, first of all, how do you find the characters that you need for the story and how do you go about developing them?

So, they they start off as fulfilling particular roles in the story I want to tell. So, the siblings, I knew the main characters would be members of this family. And so, it helps to have a vision of what you want this story to be. And because I knew this was a family saga, I knew the main points of view would revolve around this family. And then I started kind of fleshing out, what would the roles be? “What characters do I want to have in this story?” So, I knew there would be a character who is going to be sort of the responsible one, you know, the prudent, reasonable leader. And, you know, he was the elder brother.

And then I knew that other characters were going to be playing off of each other, and there was going to be a much more emotional, impulsive, charismatic brother, and he would be this counterpoint to his older brother, but he would also have this rivalry with his sister, who was very similar in age. And she was bringing a different perspective because she rejected their upbringing and all the constraints of that patriarchal society and left. And she’s coming back. So, I knew that she would have a particular character arc.

So, I just started off, and then I was like, “Okay, well, I also want a character who is new to this, like, he’s the protege, and through him, I’m going to be able to introduce how this jade magic works and how people come up in this world, because that’ll be…the fact that he’s in school, he’s going to be able to show the reader, you know, how people train to be able to harness this magic.

So, they start off as fulfilling specific rules in the story, and then they gain their own unique identity, and then the story starts responding to them. So there’s this interplay. It’s not like, you know, the characters come first and then the plot, or the plot comes first and then the characters, they’re very much sort of interacting, and there’s this whole iterative process between them and the storyline.

Characters change as you write, at least, mine do, from what you might have initially. But as you throw them into situations, you see how they react and how they interact with each other. And I’m always fascinated by that, because these things…we set out with an idea in our head, and yet somehow, as the words flow out of your fingers, it’s not always an entirely conscious process. It’s quite fascinating to me.

Yeah, definitely. I mentioned the outline changing. I initially had…even though I knew how the story would end, I didn’t have the specifics of it correct. So, I had an idea of what the final big climax would be. And as I wrote, I realized, “No, based on what the characters would do, that’s not going to be how it how it goes.” So, you’re right, there’s this…things change, because you get to know the characters better. You start off…they sort of start off as puppets doing your will, having…you’re just trying to move them around. And then by the time you’re finished, get to near the end of the book, you know them a lot better, and you go back to the beginning and start revising and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, no, that’s not really how he would say that. So, yeah.”

So, yeah, and I want to talk about revision process in a mintue. But I also wanted to ask about the…there’s a great fascination in people who are interested in writing fantasy with creating magic systems. And this one is unique, I think. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this. And I kind of like the fact that it’s just this one single magical thing in a world that is otherwise very much like ours, and how that changes things. Is that kind of what you were going for?

Yes, definitely. I really like my fantasy to feel very grounded. And, you know, I’ve never really gravitated towards writing high fantasy, if you will. And before I wrote this series, I was writing science fiction.

And this does have a certain amount of a science fiction feel to it just because it is a high-tech world.

Right. And I’ve had that comment before, that this feels like a fantasy where the magic is treated in a science fiction away. You know, there’s…you may not have reached this chapter yet, but there’s a scene where the Jade is being referred to by these foreigners, and they’re calling it bio-energetic jade. Because, you know, it’s not magic in this world. It’s magic…

To us.

To us, but the characters just see it as, “This is just the way it was,” just sort of…I mean, it’s something that we don’t totally understand. I mean, I’m not sure I totally understand quantum physics. It’s magic to me, but it exists. And so, these characters don’t think of it like magic. In fact, there’s never the use of the word magic in the entire series.

So, I like to write the use of, the existence of, this substance as a way to to heighten and examine the social conflicts. So, the fact that this jade exists creates the particular structure of this civilization, and the fact that other countries are coveting it and that technology is impacting its use is also playing in here, because if there was this substance in our world, you know, it wouldn’t be like a fantasy novel where there is birthright and only certain people are born with magic. There’s a drug being created that would allow other people to use it. And that’s just feels very real to me. Like, yes, of course, like, someone would apply science to this magic thing and figure out how to use it more widely. And so, all of those things are playing into the story.

And it was very much my intention that, you know, this magic substance is a resource. And with any scarce resource, it’s going to create disparity of distribution. It’s going to create conflict. It’s going to create, you know, social questions of, you know, how it’s viewed religiously and socially. So, all of that is part of the story, and it’s not, you know, it’s not treated like magic. It’s just treated like a fact.

In the family and the clans and the whole society, there are all sorts of different points of view being presented and bouncing off of each other. And I noticed in your previous interview that you were a high-school debater, which stuck out for me because I was also a high school debater. And I do think–and I think you mentioned it, this was in the Locus interview–when you do formal debate, you have to argue both sides.

Right!

It doesn’t matter which one you personally are drawn to, you have to argue both sides to the best of your ability. And I think that does come through in the book.

Yeah, I think it is very much present in, I think, almost all of my writing, honestly, I feel like I don’t ever want to write just obviously good characters and obviously bad characters. I like to write stories where you can see the point of view of the other side. Like, the main antagonist in the Green Bones Saga is Ayt Mada, who is the leader of the opposing clan. And, you know, she makes some pretty good points. You know, she wants to kill all of our protagonist characters, but, you know, she has reasons for why she’s doing what she’s doing. And I like to think that I can rewrite the story again from the other clan’s point of view and make a case for your sympathies that way.

That was certainly my approach when I was writing my young adult duology as well. It would be easy to write a teen protagonist who is just, you know, plucky hero fighting against the aliens. But I made him a security officer whose job is to enforce the laws under alien governance. And, you know, there is…because of his position, he can see a lot of the good things that have come out of the intergalactic trade and being part of this larger alien empire. And so, there’s…I like to…I like having characters in that gray zone of, you know, moral ambiguity and which side is right. Is there a right side? And I think that does come through in my writing, even if it…regardless of whether it’s YA or adult or fantasy or science fiction.

So going back to your actual process, what…you said, you have to write in isolation, do you sit at your desk for four or five or six hours a day in your home office? Do you go off and write in a notebook under a tree somewhere? What’s your actual writing process look like?

Much more like the former, the sitting in my chair at the desk for four to five hours. Not always in my home because…well, sometimes in my home, maybe about half the time. and sometimes I just need to get out and have a change of scene. So, I’ll go to a coffee shop or the library and I will write there. But I try to…not necessarily write the same amount of time or the same number of words every day, but I have short-term and medium-term goals that I set for myself by backing in from what I need to get things done. So, I know that I have to hit some deadline at some point and I’ll back out from there and say, “OK, well, that means I need to have a second draft by this date, which means I need a first draft by this date so I have time to give it to better readers…” So, if I know when I need to get a first draft done, then I’ll be like, “OK, I really should try and get the first half done by the end of summer,” for example. And that means I need to really get about X number of words, or this week I’m going to try and get these two scenes done. and then I’ll block out time to do that. So it’s, you know, it’s always thrown for a loop by the schedule, whether I’m traveling or, you know, other things are going on.

But I work best when I am by myself and it’s quiet. I don’t even listen to music. I put on noise-canceling headphones with ambient noise just in the background, like rain falling–it’s actually quite easy because Portland is usually raining, so there’s usually background noise of rain falling–and a big cup of tea. If I can get a solid three to five hours, that’s what I’m most productive.

Now we’ll circle back around to the revision process. So, you mentioned first draft, second draft, so I’m guessing you do a complete first draft and then go back and rewrite from the beginning. Is that how it works?

You know, it depends. It’s kind of…every book sort of is different in that regard. I don’t always do a full first draft and then go back from the beginning and start rewriting. Sometimes that is the case. That was the case with Zeroboxer. I just got, boom!, all the way through and wrote a first draft, but other books have sort of defied that model. Jade War is a good example because I had multiple POVs and they were in different places and I couldn’t write straight through. I would lose the thread of the overall narrative, so I had to write non-linearly. I would write one character’s POV, and then I would write another character’s POV, and I would try to figure out how to stitch the…where they were intersecting and where they fell in the overall timeline…and then stitch them together. And it was…it was more like quilting then like one straight, you know, knitting process. So, I couldn’t even tell you what draft I was on at any given time because it would be like, “I don’t know, is this like 2.34?” Because there would be parts where I had written it and then I had revised that part, but I had still not written the first draft of this other part. And so, it was just all piecemeal and all over the place. So, you know, at some point the idea of even like first, second draft just sort of fell apart.

Once you had it to the point where you considered it more-or-ess complete…you mentioned beta readers. So, what do they provide for you?

So, I will send it to beta readers to have them read the whole thing and give reactions on the structure, which parts felt like they needed more work. Maybe where things were not clear. It really is just to get outside eyes on it.

How many do you have? And where did you find them?

I have, you know, usually between three to five people read it, not including my husband, who I also use as a reader. And I’ve found them from, generally, just the writing community here in Portland, and other spec-fic writers who are also working on novels, because though we don’t have these expectations of meeting every second week, we just are very much…we’ve set it up so that it’s a…we get in touch when one of us has a novel that is done.

So you do the same thing for other writers as well?

Right.

And then once it gets to the editor, what what does your editorial feedback look like?

Well, my editor is…I’ve had multiple editors. So, I have an editor for my YA–I’ve had two different editors there–and obviously my editor at Orbit, and usually it goes to my editor, and then there’s silence for a little while, and then I get this very long, very daunting letter back, you know, with all the reactions and what needs work. And then I look at the letter and I panic for forty-eight hours, and then I set up a phone call with my editor and we talk through it.

And I find…I really…the editorial process is one of the best parts of of the whole writing process, even though it is very stressful at times. It’s where the book really gets better. The editorial feedback is just so intensely valuable. And the editor is both a source of misery, but a real…but also, your greatest champion. Because my editor wants the book to be true to my vision and to be the best possible version of itself that it can be. So, it’s really a partnership. And my editor is frighteningly efficient. I think I turned in Jade War…I can’t even remember exactly when I turned it in…but she read it and had this long edit letter for me like two weeks later, I don’t think I’d even really fully recovered from finishing it and handing it in. So when the edit letter came back it was like whiplash, ’cause she had read the whole thing and gotten back to me with notes so quickly.

But I think a lot of aspiring writers fear the editorial process. I get this a lot. I’ll teach writing workshops and writers will say things like, “Oh, but like, you know, what’s it like when the editor wants to change your book? Like, do you have to listen to them?” And these…they’ll have comments that make it seem like the editor is your enemy. And, you know, “What do you do if they want you to change your book?” Most of the time, that is not not how the relationship goes at all. I mean, I’m not saying there are no bad editor relationships. There certainly are. But in my experience, you know, you and the editor are working toward the same goal. And every one of my editors has made my books better.

Well, you have  a pretty impressive list of awards that you’ve picked up along the way. What have those meant to you, to get that kind of professional feedback?

I mean, they’ve been…they’ve meant a lot because, you know, they are…they’re first of all, a sense of, “Wow, like people actually are reading my books and they like them and they think they’re good.” So, I often say this, it’s funny because awards are both very meaningful and meaningless at the same time. So, they are very meaningful in the sense that you have received outside validation that you’re doing pretty well and other people in the know, especially if it’s a pure award like the Nebula nomination, I know I’m being nominated not just by, you know, any random person, but all my fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, whom I respect and I know that that isn’t a nomination that’s given lightly. They’re not going to nominate something that they don’t think is well written. So, it’s very meaningful. The World Fantasy Award, which I won, was hugely meaningful because I knew that…it’s a juried award, and these jurors are chosen carefully, and they’re like experts in their field, they’ve read a lot. They read–I don’t know how many books in order to come up with the shortlist and then to decide. So, it’s incredibly important. It’s a huge honor to get nominated for any of those major awards and to win an award like that.

At the same time, it doesn’t change your day-to-day life or routine. Like, you have this burst of achievement and joy and people are congratulating you, and it feels amazing for a short while, and then it’s, you know, it’s back to work. You know, you’ve still got a sit down, your life doesn’t change overnight or anything like that. It’s not like, you know, you’ve won the lottery in publishing and now from now on, you know, you’re not going to get rejected anymore like you. It’s not a magic sales ticket. It’s not like, you know, the next day suddenly you’re, you know, raking in dough. You get the validation and you enjoy it and you bask in that achievement and then you sit right back down in your chair, and you’re still facing the blank screen the next day.

And, of course, with a lot of these things, you get recognized for something that to you is now way in the past and you’re struggling with something brand new.

Oh, definitely.

It’s like, you know, when get your book, and you…people say, “Isn’t it exciting to get your book?” Well, it is, but I have no desire to read it because it’s in the past, right? I’m working on something new.

Yeah. I remember actually feeling quite stressed after won the World Fantasy Award. I was smack dab in the middle of writing the second book. And the amount of…after the, you know, the excitement wore off, there was the pressure of, “Oh, great. Like, how am I going to write a sequel to live up to the first book?” Because now there’s expectations. So…and I feel the same way.

The same thing happens with book launches. Book launches are very funny because, you know, you’re launching a thing that you worked on so long ago. And you’re, you know, talking to interviewers and you’re doing bookstore events and you’re talking about this thing that you wrote and you’re acting happy and excited. You are happy and excited, but, you know, in the back of your mind, you’re stressing about whatever it is you’re working on right now. You know, “I still can’t figure out this plot point.” So it’s funny. Your brain is always kind of broken up based on the projects that are going on.

Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so this is where I asked the big philosophical questions. Well, one really, Which is simply…well, it’s kind of a three-parter. Why do you write, why do you think anybody writes, and in particular, why do you and I and other people write science fiction and fantasy?

So, I write because I love stories. And I think that stories are the truest form of human communication. I think everything that we do to relate to each other revolves around stories. Have you sat down with a bunch of friends that you haven’t seen for a few years or weeks? You immediately start telling stories, saying, “Oh, how’s it going?” And someone says like, “Oh, well, you know, last month I went here and this and that.” And they’ll, you know, they start telling a story.

I think that the stories are how we share ourselves with others. And everything that I write, I feel like I’m sharing something about myself with the world. And ideally. I’m sending that out into the world so that other people who read it will find something in those words that connects with them, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, like I feel like I relate and I understand and I see myself in that, too.” So, you know, there’s something personal about writing that…I think writers feel very drawn to kind of put their own truth out there. And, you know, when you see things in the world and, you know, you have personal experiences, you know, you can…part of, for me, the way to process them and to talk about them is to tell a story.

And when it comes to, you know, why science fiction and fantasy in particular? I think it’s a way to really stretch the imaginative boundaries of our minds, but then use that to tell fundamental truth or to reflect the human experience. So, if I’m going to tell a story about war, I could write about a specific war in our real history, but I can say something more, both broader and kind of more underlying about war itself in general, by putting it in a fantasy world or a science fiction world where, you know, there’s two alien races or, you know, it’s humans against cyborgs or whatever, and tell a story about war that way. And then I’m not bringing the real-life baggage of a specific event in history from our world into the conversation. Then it’s just a story about the truth of war and how it affects those characters and those characters are a stand in for, you know, any number of humans or people in our world.

So, I think that science fiction/fantasy really builds empathy in a way because, can you make a reader relate to a human who’s living 300 years in the future or an alien or a magical being or a robot? If you can, then you’re asking them to empathize with someone who’s very different than them. And that’s something that we can all use more of in the world.

I was going to say, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and so I’ll ask you, as I’ve asked others, do you hope in some way that through your fiction you are…shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping individuals and changing them in some way when they read your stories?

I certainly hope so. And I think that, you know, that is really probably the most validating thing about being an author, is when you hear from a reader who has really connected with your work and for whom your book means a lot. We all have those books in our lives where, you know, you feel like you read this book and it really shapedd, you know, our view on something, fiction or, you know, some  issue or what have you. And having those moments…I mean, I’ve I’ve been honestly amazed and thrilled by how much international enthusiasm the Green Bones Saga has gotten. You know, I’ve had readers from the Philippines and New Zealand and Britain, like, people all over the world, who’ve said that they really love the fact that, you know, it’s a different take on fantasy, that it’s not fantasy that is set in some version of medieval northern Europe, that they are seeing fantasy worlds that that aren’t sort of the traditional mold of fantasy and that that meant a lot to them. That has been really, really awesome. And, you know, I think the fantasy genre as a whole is seeing a lot of that, just a broadening of, like, what sort of voices and stories are being told in fantasy. And I am really glad I get to be a part of that.

And what are you working on now?

Well, my answer is gonna be the same for the next year or so. And that is the third book of the Green Bones saga.

Does it have a title?

Yeah, there is, and I can’t announce it yet. Maybe by the time this podcast goes live, it will be public (It is, as you can see from the cover art at left – Ed.), but it does have a title. Orbit will be announcing it soon. And that will be my monster project for a while, because capping this trilogy is going to be no mean feat. And then I’ve got some other projects in the works that…well, I won’t speak of yet, but stay tuned.

And where can people find you online?

They can find me on my Web site, which is fondalee.com. I am on Twitter @FondaaJLee, and occasionally on Facebook. But yeah, people can certainly find me on the interweb.

I’m just curious, why is there a J in the Twitter handle and not on your website?

Only because the Twitter handle was taken by some sort of egg.

That’s so annoying.

Yeah.

Yeah. The reason this is called…well, it wasn’t a Twitter problem, but it was a domain name problem. This podcast is called The Worldshapers because Worldshapers was just being held by somebody who said, “Oh, well, we’ll sell it to you for $2,000 or $5,000, whatever it was. I said, “You know, I don’t think I need to spend that money on that.”

Right.

Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.

I did! Thank you, Ed. And I will be sure to signal boost once it goes live. And good luck with the rest of your interviews you have lined up. Sounds like you’ve got quite a lineup the rest of this summer and year.

Yeah, it’s going really well. So, I hope to keep doing it for a long time. Anyway…

Awesome!

Bye for now.

OK, bye. Take care.