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An hour-long interview with Nancy Kress, bestselling Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Campbell Award-winning author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections, including Beggars in Spain, Probability Space, and Steal Across the Sky, as well as three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.
Nancy Kress is the bestselling author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections. Among her books are Beggars in Spain, Probability Space, and Steal Across the Sky. She’s also published three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.Nancy is a six-time Nebula Award winner, including two consecutive awards for her novellas “After the Fall,” “Before the Fall,” “During the Fall,” and “Yesterday’s Kin.” She’s also the recipient of the Sturgeon and Campbell Awards, as well as two Hugo Awards. Her fiction has been translated into nearly two dozen languages, including Klingon. She teaches writing at workshops, including Clarion West and Taos Toolbox, as well as at the University of Leipzig in Germany as a guest professor. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, the author Jack Skillingstead.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Nancy.
Thank you, Ed.
I don’t believe we’ve ever met in person. I’m sure we must have been at the same conventions at the same time, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually spoken in person.
Since I’ve been going to conventions for 40 years, I’m sure we were there some time together.
So, I’m very happy to have you. We’re going to talk about a couple of things, a new novella called “Sea Change” and upcoming novel, The Eleventh Gate. But before we get to that, let’s do the background information. So where did you grow up and how did you get interested in writing? Most of us started as kids, or at least we started reading as kids. And that’s what turned us on to science fiction and fantasy. Was that how it was for you?
No, not exactly. I grew up in the 1950s in a small town, and we lived way out in the country. And my mother did not drive and my father had the car away at work, so I didn’t get into town very often. The books that were available to me, other than the ones at home, were in the school library. And remember, this was the ‘50s. When I was a child, the library was divided into a boys’ section and a girls’ section, and all of the science fiction, with little rocketships on the spines, was shelved in the boys’ section, and all of the fantasy in the girls’ section. So I read Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, and Green Fairy Book, and Plaid Fairy Book and Polka-Dot Fairy Book and all the rest of them, and some fantasy, but no science fiction.
I didn’t see any science fiction until I was fourteen. I had my first boyfriend, who lived down the road and was studying to be a concert pianist. And every day after school, I would go over to his house and hang over the piano adoringly while he practiced. And the problem with that is that I’m tone-deaf and I can only hang adoringly for about ten minutes. And after that, I started inching towards the bookshelves in his parents’ house and pulling out books at random. And one of the books that I pulled out was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. And in five minutes, I was in love, and not with the pianist. I’d never seen anything this…wide…with such a large canvas, so grand. And I immediately got very interested in it.
But I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Again, my mother was Italian-American. She raised me in the way she’d been raised, and she sat me down when I was twelve and said, “Do you want to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary?” Those were all the things she could imagine. And I said, “A teacher, I want to teach kids.” She said, “OK, you’ll have to go to college for that.” And that’s what I did. I taught the fourth grade for four years after I graduated from college, and I didn’t start writing until I was almost 30. It didn’t occur to me that this was even possible. As a child, a young child like eight or nine, I didn’t know that anybody was a writer. I thought all writers were dead. The writers I was reading were like Louisa May Alcott and Zane Grey and the Nancy Drew books, and I assumed it was a finite resource like oil, and we were going to run out of it eventually.
Peak author. So, you did go into writing, but you did start writing fiction, right away. You were writing…you went into the sort of corporate copy and that sort of side of writing to begin with, didn’t you?
That actually was later.
Oh, was it?
That was later. I started writing when I was pregnant with my second child. I was home, again, living out in the country, with a toddler and a difficult pregnancy and alone a lot of the day with the kids. And when they were napping, I started writing to have something to do that didn’t involve Sesame Street and had words of more than two syllables. And I didn’t take it seriously for a long time. I was a mother, and that was what I was doing, and I was taking my graduate work in elementary education because I assumed I’d go back to that, which I actually never did. And I would send stories out and they would come back and I’d send them out and they would come back. And then after a year, one of them sold. And then, after another year, another one sold, and slowly it began to dawn on me that I really like doing that better than teaching the fourth grade.
I see from the bio that you have on your website your first story was what you termed the “eminently forgettable” “The Earth Dwellers,” which appeared in Galaxy in 1976. I remember Galaxy; I had a subscription to Galaxy for a while. I probably read it.
But what I did not know, Ed, was that Galaxy, at the time they brought my story, was trembling on the verge of bankruptcy, and everybody who knew anything, which did not include me, had stopped sending them material. So, I think they bought my story partly out of desperation. And then they promptly went out of business right after that and declared bankruptcy. And it took me three years to get my $105. I kept writing to Saul Cohan over and over again, saying, “This is my first story, and I really, really want the payment.” And finally, they sent me a cheque. Whining has its uses.
Your first novel came out about five years after that, right?
Yes. And it was a fantasy. The first three novels were fantasies. And then I switched to science fiction. And I really don’t know why, because nothing about my career has been planned. I didn’t plan on being a writer. I didn’t plan on writing fantasy novels. I didn’t plan on switching to science fiction novels. I have never done what many people say you’re supposed to do, which is build a brand. And as a result, the whole thing has a certain haphazard luck to it.
Well, I think one of the things I find doing this podcast is that every writer comes to it from a different direction and in a different path. And, you know, people ask, “How do you become a writer?” And it’s, well, there’s a different story for everybody that becomes one, it seems to me.
Yes, that’s absolutely right.
You did get a master’s in English. Did you take any actual creative writing courses at any point? I ask that because I get widely varying opinions from authors as to whether those did them any good or not, the ones who took them.
I took one, and I was fortunate because the instructor liked and understood science fiction. He didn’t write it himself, but he liked it and he understood it. Other people I’ve talked to, writers, have had very bad experiences because their instructors…I know one writer whose instructor told him, “I don’t know why reality isn’t enough for you.” But this was useful to me. I had just started to write, and it was useful because it explained things like what a point of view is and why it’s nice to have one and other basic things that, even though I had always been a reader, ever since I was a little kid, I would read absolutely anything, if there was nothing else available. The back of a cereal box would do, but I’d never thought about the mechanics of it. And so, yes, it was useful. And because it was a critique class, it was also useful to get the feedback from other students in the class who were at least readers, or they wouldn’t have been there.
Yes, I often ask people who started writing as a kid, as some did, like I did. And I would share my…I sort of did the critique thing. I would share my stories with my classmates. And I found out that they actually liked my stories and that at least gave me some income, an indication that, you know, I could tell a story that maybe somebody would be interested in reading. You actually…I got ahead of myself previously, but you did work writing corporate copy and advertising copy and that sort of thing for a while.
Yeah, that came a little later. After I got my master’s degree in English and my kids were old enough to go back to school, to start school, I realized I didn’t want to teach the fourth grade, and I know I probably wouldn’t have been able to even if I had wanted to, because it was the baby bust, and they were laying off elementary teachers, not hiring them. So I took work as an adjunct at the university. And then for a couple of years, I filled in full time, not tenure track, but when somebody was going on sabbatical, I would fill in and take over for them in the English department. So I taught college for a couple of years. And then, because that’s a sort of hit-and-miss thing, I needed a real job because I was getting divorced. And that’s when I went to work for an ad agency and wrote corporate copy, internal copy, mostly for Xerox.
Did you find that type of writing has helped you in any way in your fiction writing? I always say writing is writing, and you can get some benefit out of just about any kind of writing you do.
I found it interesting and useful, not so much from a writing standpoint, but from the viewpoint…because I already published a couple of novels by then and a whole bunch of short stories…I found it useful in understanding how the world works and especially how power works. I had been in academe my whole life as a student, as a fourth-grade teacher, as a college teacher. The corporate world is much different. And it was an education for me to see how…because I was writing for executives, mostly. I would be writing scripted slideshows, speeches, things like that, starting with newsletters and then working my way up. And it was very interesting to see that the corporate world runs on entirely different principles. And it was useful in that respect. As far as the actual writing, less so, because corporations want things phrased in ways that are almost antithetical to good English. I had spent a lot of years learning to write clear sentences, but clear sentences tend not to disguise responsibility so much as the use of passive verbs. You don’t say “so-and-so decided,” you say, “it was decided that.” And large words…a Lot of terrible words were coming into use at that time. “Incentivize,” “negative profits,” things like that, that they wanted included in the copy. So, the writing was not…it didn’t help the writing in that sense, but it did help my education, which had been pretty sheltered, about how the world works.
And then, when did you start writing about writing? You said you’d already been teaching writing some. And you wrote a column for many years for Writer’s Digest. When did that all come along?
Yes. The column came first. The college where I was teaching, State University in New York at Brockport, on a hit-and-miss basis, ran a bunch of summer workshops called the Writer’s Forum, and they had a section for…where they brought in, paired one faculty member with one visiting writer. They had a section for poetry, a section for fiction, a section for journalism, all kinds of them. And somebody decided that a section for science fiction would be good. And this was very useful to me because I got to bring in, every summer for a week, another science fiction writer, who stayed at my house and we talked together. And this forged a lot of alliances and friendships that were very valuable to me. My first year, I taught with Frederick Pohl, the second with Gene Wolfe, the third with Connie Willis, and it went on and on like that. And I really, really enjoyed those.
But one of the other sections was magazine writing, which was being taught by a visiting person who was one of the editors on Writers Digest. And he said to me, “You know, you should you should write a column for us.” First, he said, “You should write some articles for us.” So, I wrote three articles, which they published, and then their regular fiction columnist, Lawrence Block, was ready to leave. He was getting tired of the whole thing. So, he left, and they hired me to do that, and I wrote the Writer’s Digest column for sixteen years. It really was just an extension of my teaching, because by that time I was teaching a lot of writing. And then out of that grew the three books on writing.
I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, my nine-month term is just wrapping up, and I’ve done that on another occasion, and I’ve taught short courses here and there along the way, and I’ve always found that trying to tell other people how to write is very beneficial to me in figuring out how I can do what I do better. Do you find that you learn from being a teacher?
Yes, very much. Every summer, Walter Jon Williams and I teach a two-week intensive workshop called Taos Toolbox in Taos, New Mexico. And our guest visiting writer is George R.R. Martin every year. And we…in fact, I’m reading manuscripts right now to choose our 18 students. And I find that going over these manuscripts…because it’s really, we work them very hard. In addition to being in class to do critiquing of each other’s work, we also assign exercises, and we do analysis of fiction, successful fiction, all kinds of things. And I get an awful lot out of that every year. The students bring different manuscripts every year, of course, and a wide variety of them. Some fantasy, some science fiction, some space opera, some military fiction. And I find it useful to me to try to figure out why a story isn’t working. It’s easy with the manuscripts that need a lot of attention, but very often at this level, you get manuscripts where they’re not quite working, but you’re not quite sure why. And sitting down, trying to pinpoint exactly why this isn’t working, and what might make it work, has a lot of carryover into my own work.
Well, let’s talk about your own work. Two pieces I wanted to talk about, and maybe we’ll start with “Sea Change,” which is the novella that’s out from Tachyon. First of all, maybe give us a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.
OK. “Sea Change” concerns three things. It’s a story about the genetic engineering of crops, GMOs are a very controversial subject, obviously, and I wanted to present both sides of this, although it’s clear which side I’m going to be coming down on, I think from the beginning. That’s one strand that went into the story. Another strand that went into the story is ocean blobs that we are increasing the getting off the West Coast. Seattle is my adopted city. I love it. I came here ten years ago to marry my husband, and I just love Seattle. It’s gorgeous. Every once in a while, off the coast, beaches are closed because we get blobs, ocean blobs. And they’re usually not harmful. They’re caused by runoffs from rivers and creeks with a lot of fertilizer in them, which causes the ocean algae to just go crazy and bloom, Everything under them, because the algae bloom is so dense, dies. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself, because they do break up eventually in the fall, except that every once in a while, certain bacteria combine with the blooms and they produce a toxin called domoic acid that poisons fish, that poisons sea lions, that poisons the small fish, then the larger fish eat them, and then the sea lions eat those, and you get a perfect disaster. And then the beaches are closed because it can also poison people.
The third strand that went into the novella was a love story. In fact, if I had it to do over again, I would probably call it “Sea Change: A Love Story.” But by the time this occurred to me, the novella had already been printed, and I didn’t think that Tachyon was going to want to go changing the title at that point. But it is very much a love story.
Now, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the difference between planning for a novella and planning for a novel. So, maybe we’ll also just flip over and you can give a brief synopsis of the novel as well. And then we’ll sort of talk about everything at once. So, the novel that’s coming out is called The Eleventh Gate, and it’s quite different. It’s a far-future space opera.
Yes, it is. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera because that was the kind of thing I was reading when I first discovered science fiction. I was reading Asimov’s Foundation series, I was reading that sort of thing, and I wanted to write a space opera. But I haven’t ever actually done it.
So, that one takes place in a pretty far future after Earth has been environmentally trashed and hardly anybody lives there anymore. There’s a couple of holdouts, but not very many. Gates have been discovered orbiting the moon. They’re hard to see, but. And we’re not up there very much. But once they get there, they find them and they lead to eight other planets. So, all of these get settled by various different groups from Earth, the eight worlds, and they are connected with these space gates that you can go through. There are ten space gates connecting the various planets because some have two, going from one planet to another. And then, someone discovers an eleventh gate. And what’s behind the eleventh gate changes everything, including the very precarious truce, balance of economic and political power among the eight worlds. And that’s what I wanted to write about, the balance of political and economic power. And I wanted to do it through certain characters, many of them women, but not all, who are very varied in belief, in temperament. None of them is somebody…well, maybe one…but other than that, nobody is someone you can say, “Oh, this is clearly the heroine. This is the good person. This is the one I want to identify with.” I was trying to make them all having the flaws of their particular backgrounds. And a few of them are just batshit crazy.
So, these are two very different stories. This is a cliched question, but it’s still a valid question, which is, I hate to say, “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s say what inspired you to write each of these…you mentioned a little bit, I think, on “Sea Change”…and is this typical of the way that story ideas come to you?
Well, more and more, I have been writing hard SF, which “Sea Change” is. The science in it is all completely accurate. That wasn’t true when I started writing. I was writing soft science fiction, in which it didn’t really matter if the science hung together. And that transitioned into, I guess, high-viscosity science fiction, if not actually hard. And now, I write hard SF. So, although I can’t usually pinpoint where a specific idea came from, and with “Sea Change” it would also be difficult. It came off the general area of genetic engineering, which I read about a lot, and which I am obsessively interested in. I’m not trained as a scientist. I wish I were, but it’s a little late for that. But I read about it, I learn about it, because this is the future. This is where we’re going. And “Sea Change” is a direct outgrowth of that interest.
The specific idea started, as all of my stories start, with a character. And this time it was the character of an old man, a patriarch, still very powerful, who runs a world and who is brought a business proposition he can’t refuse. And from there, once I had this, I wrote, as I always do, I wrote the first scene sort of in a white-hot heat. And then I sat down and said, “OK, what have I got here? Who is this person? Who is this other person? Where is this going? What are the implications of the situation I’ve set up?” And the same thing is true of (The Eleventh Gate). The first couple of scenes came to me, and then I write them, and then I sit down and I start thinking about first the characters and the situation, and then secondly, the things I’ve learned painfully about structure. Structure came harder to me than characterization, which is one reason why my short stories for a very long time were more successful than my novels.
So it sounds like you….basically it’s a process of self-interrogation, where you have the initial thought, and then you ask yourself a lot of questions. Is that a fair way to describe that?
That’s half of it. That’s the questioning part that is intellectual. Because there are two questions that guide the construction of all fiction, basically. One is, “What do these people want?” If your characters don’t want anything, you really don’t have a piece of fiction. Sometimes maybe all they really want in a short story is to be left alone. But it’s better…and the longer the work, the more things they have to want and the more they have to want them intensely. So you ask, “What do these people want?” And the other question is, “What can go wrong?” Because that’s where the conflict comes from. If your character wants something and then they go out and get it, you really don’t have a story there, either.
So intellectually, those two questions guide me. But on the other side, it’s a little more mystical. It’s like the Stanislavski method of acting, where you become the character. I try to become this person from the inside out. When I write “Sea Change,” I am Renata. And if…when this goes well—and it doesn’t every day, but some days it does—my life disappears. I disappear. The room around me disappears. I am Renata, and I’m in this space, and what Renata would do next comes to me naturally because I’m in her mind, I’m in her heart, or she’s in mine. And that’s the other part of how I proceed. I know this sounds like a mishmash of intellectual combined with mystical. But that’s kind of how it is.
Have you done any theater?
Have I done what?
Theater. Any acting?
No. No. I don’t think…my sister is an actress. She’s a very good actress. But I don’t think I could do it. I’m…like many writers, not all, but many. I’m very much an introvert. And the idea that I have to get out there and interact with people every night for eight shows a week. It wouldn’t work. Also, I’m a morning person.
Well, that really doesn’t work.
No, it really doesn’t work. They wouldn’t let me go home at nine o’clock at night. So, no.
So, I asked that partly because I am an actor and have done, both professional…
Oh! What kind of acting do you do?
Mostly stage acting. I’ve done a lot of musicals.
That’s what my sister does. Well, she doesn’t do musicals too much anymore. She started with it. Because her voice isn’t trained, and as she’s gotten older, it’s gotten a little rusty. But she’s…she had marvelous stage presence. She still does. She does a lot of Shakespeare.
The reason I asked was what you’re describing is, of course, the acting process, you know, however you approach it, you pretend to be somebody else, you try to inhabit that person and bring them to life on stage. And the authors I’ve spoken to who have done stage acting find that it’s, the two processes are very similar. So, yeah. Absolutely. And now, what does your actual planning…
I didn’t come to it that way, though. I came to it as a reader. Even as a girl, what I would read something, the whole world would go away. My mother would get quite irritated because she’d have to say my name three or four times before I’d even hear her. I became those people in those books. And that kind of identification for me grew out of reading, not acting.
Yeah, I had both.
So, what does your actual planning/outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do just kind of a sketch, or what does your planning look like? And how is it different for the shorter work as opposed to the longer work?
The shorter work doesn’t really have any planning. The shorter work I kind of write, and about halfway through it all comes together in my mind. By shorter, I’m saying something under 10,000 words. And when you grow things organically that way, a certain number of them die. And that has happened. I have a whole file full of unfinished short stories that will never be finished because it just dried up on me.
That doesn’t work for longer work. For novellas or novels, you have to have some sort of structure. And structure has been harder for me to learn than characterization or language. What I do now is…I don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but I have a general idea where I’m going, and what I will do, as I did this morning, is I will sit down and I’ll think, “OK, this is the next scene, and this is the one after that, and the one after that might be this.” And I’ll make notes of those three scenes, and as they get a little clearer in my mind, I’ll sit down—going with the general direction that I know I’m moving—and I’ll write…I’ll begin work on one of those scenes. And by the time I finished it, I’m hoping that a couple more will have become clear to get where I need to go.
There are certain things I will check for, too, as I’m going along. You need to have the stakes rising throughout the story, as they do in “Sea Change.” You need to have the conflict escalating. You need to move towards some sort of climax. And you need to make sure that there isn’t too much after the climax or it will be…anticlimactic! So, there is a certain structure that I have in my head, and it’s built around, again, those two questions, “What do these people want?” and “What can go wrong?”
And what they want might change. In fact, for the length of an entire novel, it has to. When I’m teaching, I point out to my students…I can’t count that they all have read the same stuff, although I give them some short stories and we talk about those. But I can usually count on some movies they’ve seen, one of which is Star Wars. So, we talk about that in terms of what Luke wants at the beginning, which is to get the hell off Tatooine, and what he wants after that, which is to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, and on through his changing desire to become a Jedi knight, too, and right up to where his desire is to destroy the Death Star. What he wants changes and builds, and it also raises the stakes each time. So, those things kind of guide me as I fumble my way through the manuscript.
How much of this do you write down ahead of time?
Not a lot. I make a lot of notes on the science because, again, I’m not trained on that. And I will do a lot of research and a lot of notes on the science and how I can use it. Science itself suggests a lot of plot points. The more I found out about domoic acid, the more plot points came through for “Sea Change.” So, the science itself will guide it. What the characters are like will guide it. Other characters’ reactions to my protagonist will guide it. The process…I know it sounds messy, but that’s because it is messy. I can’t…I don’t outline. I’m kind of in awe of writers who do outline in detail because I can’t do that.
I think my…the example I keep giving from the people I’ve talked to on the podcast is Peter V. Brett, author of The Demon Cycle. And he writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing. And that’s the most detailed outliner I’ve encountered yet in the podcast.
That’s amazing. I would feel like I’d written the whole book. I would need to write it, then.
Yeah, I don’t think I would work for me either. What is your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, get a quill pen and sit under a tree, or…?
No. I write mornings. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. In the afternoon, I will do research and publicity and student manuscripts and stuff like that. But in the morning, I get up very early, like five o’clock. And that hasn’t always been the case, but it’s been…well, it’s been the case for much of my adult life. First, I needed to get up and write before my children got up, and then by that time, it was already ingrained. It was too late to change. But I get up, and for the first hour, I drink the first cup of coffee, I putter around the kitchen, I look at the e-mail, but don’t answer it, I check CNN to make sure nothing has blown up overnight, things like that. And then, around six, I settle in and I write…I work for several hours.
And do you do a…getting to the revision process, do you just barrel through to the end and then go back and revise, or do you revise along the way or how does that work for you?
Both. The plotting of scenes and the thinking about them is all done on a clipboard with yellow legal pads. The actual writing of words that will go into the story is done on a computer. And usually, I write the whole thing straight through. But if I feel that I’m in trouble, then I will stop and go back and rethink it, with my little clipboard and my yellow pages, and sometimes dump large sections of what I’ve written and then go back to the computer and write new sections. But I try not to do that too much. I try to have some sense of what I’m doing. The first half is always messier than the second half, because by the second half I really know what I’m doing.
That’s a first draft. The second draft, I will revise major things, characterization problems, scenes that are missing that I think I need now. I keep sort of running list of these as I’m working. And that’s the big stuff. The third draft, I go through and I clean up. I also, on the second draft, will pick up things where…I don’t want to stop writing, so I write in triple parentheses, “Find this out later,” and then keep going. These are details that I just don’t want to stop and research at the time.
And I have to say the computer and the Internet make this so much easier. I remember when I first started to write, this was in the ’80s, and the Internet didn’t exist, and I needed to know for some story long forgotten how high a regulation basketball hoop was from the gym floor. This required a trip over to the university library, trying to find it myself, failing, bothering the reference librarian, and she and I riffled through things till we finally find it, then I had to trudge all the way home. There’s a couple of hours involved for this stupid little detail.
I remember those days, yeah.
Oh, yeah. Now, it’s so easy. It’s so nice to be able to do it on the Internet and find out instantly how high that basketball hoop is supposed to be.
As long as you’re disciplined enough not to then end up finding yourself reading a history of the National Basketball Association or something like that along the way.
Well, with sports, that’s not really a temptation for me. The only sports I’m really interested in are the Seattle Seahawks.
Do you have anybody that reads…like, beta readers that some authors like to use, or is it just you…
Oh, well, yeah. I was going to ask you about being married to a writer. So there you go.
Yes. Before Jack, I was married to Charles Sheffield, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. So, it’s been two writers. And in each case, we looked at each other’s manuscripts and made suggestions. And yes, that’s very, very helpful.
I married an engineer, who is not much help to me as a writer, but has been a great help to me on the family income side.
Yes, I can imagine.
Good career move on my part. She hates that joke, but it’s true. So, once you have your final draft, then it goes to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get on your work?
Oh, it varies so much by editor. There are editors who do absolutely no editorial work. Obviously, they send it to a copy editor, who will go over it and look for factual errors and inconsistencies, and why does she have blue eyes in Chapter 3 and green eyes in Chapter 18, that kind of thing. But I’ve had editors that have made extremely useful, substantive suggestions, and I’ve had editors that I’m not absolutely positive read the manuscript.
You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers over the years, haven’t you?
Yes, yes. For a while, they kind of kept going…amalgamating or going bankrupt or whatever. I followed David Hartwell around for a while from different posts, and that was kind of nice. And then eventually, I was working with Jim Minz, his assistant, and then Jim left, and I went to a different publisher. And now I’m back with Jim Minz at Baen, that’s publishing The Eleventh Gate, which I’m very pleased to be back working with him. And in the meantime, the novella is a standalone…
Well, the novella is my favorite form. Science fiction, for reasons that defy understanding, defines a novella as between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and my novellas are usually pushing up at the 40,000-word mark. It’s my favorite form because a novella is short enough to need a single plotline to go barreling through, long enough to create an alternate world or a believable future. In a novel, on the other hand, you need not only a main plot but braided plots on top of that, and I find that more challenging. I really like novellas. Almost all of my awards are for novellas.
Is the editing process different for those than for novels?
Not really. Some editors give me useful feedback, things that they think need to be strengthened. That happened with “Sea Change.” I got some very useful information from Jacob (Weisman) about the ending on that. And I rewrote the ending to strengthen it. But some do and some don’t. It depends on both the editor and the work.
I have been with…DAW is my major publisher, and so I’ve worked with Sheila Gilbert. I’ve only had the one editor for my major books. And so, it’s always interesting to me to talk to people about working with a variety of editors. I have worked with other editors of smaller publishers, but Sheila is so good, I don’t know what it’d be like to work with a different editor.
I’ve never had the pleasure of working with Sheila.
Well, we’re getting close-ish to the end, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions. You’ve done a lot of thinking about writing and a lot of teaching of writing, so this should be easy for you. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, first of all, and why science fiction and fantasy specifically?
There are days when I think I have no idea why anybody writes. But, you know, actually, that’s a difficult question, Ed. I’ve done this for so long, for forty years now, that it’s so deeply ingrained in me to think in terms of stories that I can’t imagine…oh, I can’t say I can’t imagine doing anything else, because I’ve done other things. I’ve taught the fourth grade, I wrote corporate copy. If you go back far enough in my college days, I waitressed in the summers. I mean, I have done other things. And of course, I was a full-time mother for a number of years, so I can imagine doing other things. But I have always told myself stories. Long before I knew I was going to be a writer, I told myself stories as I fell asleep, in which I was always the heroine. Since the 1950s Saturday morning consisted of cartoons and westerns, these were westerns. We weren’t allowed to watch television except on Saturday morning. So, I would invent gangs of my Western heroes, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger and all the rest of it. And I’d be a member of this gang, too, and I’d invent all these stories and tell myself a different chapter every night. Stories were ingrained, and I think that the human brain is built to understand the world in terms of stories.
Og, sitting around the campfire, tells a story about the great hunt he did that day, and then everybody else wants to go where Og went and kill a bison where he killed one. We’re meant to understand the world in terms of stories. And I think that’s why even people who don’t read usually watch television, with its versions of stories, and movies.
And Og embellished his story, too, the more often he told it,
Oh, Og was a terrible liar. Can’t believe a word the man says.
So, why do you think we, those of us who do, why do you think we write within the science fiction and fantasy genres specifically?
So, that’s a little harder to understand. I think, though, that it’s a large enough canvas, it’s especially suited—and this really is a cliché—to exploring ideas: political ideas, scientific ideas. It’s a rehearsal for different ways that we might live, or rather an exploration of different ways that we might live. My favorite SF writer of all time is Ursula LeGuin. And I have read The Dispossessed until my copy fell apart and I had to buy a new one. I’ve also taught it on two continents. She’s taken there the idea of anarchy, and she’s saying, “Would this be a viable way for us to live? And if so, what might it look like?” And I think that’s what science fiction does.
With “Sea Change,” I’m saying, “OK, what if we really were serious about the genetic engineering of crops, what might drive us to do that and what might it look like if we did?” And I think you can do that with most fiction, and with science fiction and fantasy you can especially do it because you can alter whatever you want to alter and put it under a kind of a microscope and say, “OK, if this were different, how would it affect us as humans?” And then you can write about it and look at it.
Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and of course, the idea is of the writers shaping the worlds that they’re writing about, but do you think or hope that your fiction might have shaped the real world in some way, or if that’s too grand, at least shaped readers in some way to think differently?
I have readers who write me and who tell me that Beggars in Spain changed them, yes. That’s my most famous novel. It’s about people genetically engineered to not need to sleep.
I remember it well.
Well, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about other things, as well. But I don’t know. I think there are very few books in history that have had that kind of impact—I don’t mean the kind of impact of Beggars in Spain, I mean a genuinely large impact—and even fewer that have shaped politics, economics, even science. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would be one. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be one in terms of giving a huge impetus to the abolition movement before the civil war.
Maybe some of Dickens?
Some of Dickens, yes, for child labor. But I don’t think there’s a lot of them. I don’t think that they shape a specific thing, so much a specific event or a specific situation, as they do shape the way that readers of science fiction, good science fiction, at least, have a certain flexibility of mind. They can look and entertain at least the possibility that things could be different than they are now.
And not everybody can do that. I have relatives who never read fiction. They say, “Why would I want to read it if it didn’t happen?” And this is completely alien to me. They also have very practical minds. They look at the world as it is and try to say, “OK, why do I want to do with what’s here?” But they never look at the world the way it is and say, “How could this be different?” And for me, that’s the most interesting part about fiction. How could this be different? How could I be different? How could what I do be different? How could what’s around me be different? And science fiction, I think, is particularly well suited to that.
And of course, there’s the fact that it’s fun.
It is fun.
Both to read and write. I think, anyway. So what are you working on now?
Well, I don’t like to talk about work in progress very much, but I am working on a novel that is about the nature of human consciousness. Nothing like taking on a large subject, is there?
So it’s a short story, then.
It’s already, it’s not done and it’s already longer than it’s supposed to be.
And coming up, we have The Eleventh Gate, I think will be out just before this goes live. So that will be the freshest thing, I think, when the podcast goes live. Where can people find you online, or learn more about you?
I have a website, nancykress.com. I have a Facebook feed, but I’m not on it, I’m afraid, very much, or at all, anymore. So, that’s probably not good. But anybody who wants to contact me can do it through the website. And the publication date for “Sea Change” has been pushed back due to the coronavirus. Jacob pointed out that there are actually no bookstores to ship this book to. So, we’re hoping that by the end of May, when is a new pub date, that there will be.
Is that for “Sea Change” or The Eleventh Gate?
Yes, both of them.
Both of them. Yes, and I was going to say, well, and people can find you at conventions, but not for a while, it looks like.
Not for a bit. And of course, both books will be available on Amazon. Along with everything else in the world.
All right. Well, I think that about wraps it up, so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
I really did. Thank you for having me, Ed. I guess I didn’t equal Scott Card’s two hours’ worth of talking, but…
Yes. Well, Scott said that he went on because I would let him talk and didn’t interrupt. And so, his default is, if the interviewer is not saying anything, I should fill the space. And so, I got two hours out of him.
Anyway, thanks so much for being on and hope to actually meet you in person sometime in the future.
Well, I’m supposed to be Guest of Honor at WorldCon in D.C. in 2021, if it happens.
Yeah, and I’d like to be there. So hopefully, I’ll see you there if not before.
That would be really nice. Take care, Ed.
You, too. Bye for now.