Episode 56: Kelley Armstrong

An hour-long conversation with New York Times-bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, author of numerous fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels in multiple series for adults, including the thirteen-book Otherworld series, which began with her first novel, Bitten, and other series and standalone novels for young adults and middle-grade readers.

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kelleyarmstrong.com

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@KelleyArmstrong

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@KelleyArmstrongAuthor

Kelley Armstrong’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo of Kelley Armstrong
Photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of numerous fantasy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, for adults, young adults, and middle-grade readers, both standalones and in multiple series.

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, she grew up in London, Ontario. She went to the University of Western Ontario to study psychology, with plans to become a clinical psychologist, but on the brink of grad school, realizing such a career would limit her writing time for many years, switched paths and went to Fanshawe College in London, studying computer programming.

While getting her education, she married and had first child, a daughter, then took a full-time job programming for a bank while continuing writing. She sold her first novel, Bitten, in 1999, and had two more children, sons, before it was released in 2001, at which point she quit her job to write full-time, which she’s been doing ever since.

Among her series: OtherworldCainsville, Rockton, Darkest Powers and Darkness Rising, Age of Legends, and the Nadia Stafford crime trilogy. She has also written several serial novellas and short stories for the Otherworld series. Starting in 2014, a Canadian television series based on Otherworld, called Bitten, aired for three seasons on Space and SyFy. Kelley lives in rural Ontario.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kelly, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

Now we’re both authors in Canada, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually met each other in person anywhere at any conventions or anything like that. I can’t think of a time.

I don’t think so. We’ve probably passed somewhere at some convention because it’s a, you know, relatively restricted literary landscape. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t recall.

Yeah, it’s a small literary landscape, but it’s a very, very large physical landscape. And Saskatchewan and…you’re in Ontario?

I am.

Yeah, they’re actually a long way away from each other.

They are.

When we moved up here from Texas when I was eight years old, it was the year of Expo ’67. And I was excited as we were leaving Texas because I thought, we’re going to Canada, and I’d get to go to Expo 67, and my parents had to point out to me that…

It’s a long way.

…we would be closer–we’d be just as far away from Montreal in Saskatchewan as we were in Texas; basically, it was pretty much the same distance. In my defense, I was only eight, so.

Exactly.

Well, so this…you have two books coming out this week–month–which we are going to talk about a little bit. But first, I’ll do what I always do with this, which is take you back into the mists of time–I’m going to put reverb on that one of these days, the mists of time–and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up and then how you got interested in writing. And probably you started as a reader, because we all do, and the sorts of things that drew you into this field and, you know, all of that stuff. So, how did that all happen for you?

Yeah. So I grew up in London, Ontario, and it is that typical thing where you start off by reading. I was a very young reader. I was the oldest child, and my parents were very keen on teaching me how to read. Neither of them was a huge reader themselves, but they understood literacy was important, and so, their first kid, they were doing everything right, making sure that I was learning to read. So, every night, after dinner, while Mom cleaned up, Dad would be reading these books. And I very quickly learned to read that way. And for me, it turned into, “I want to do that.” I would take those stories and do what we would now call fanfiction, where I would take what I had heard and maybe create a new story for those characters or a story with different characters in that world as some way of working on what the author had created and building my own stories on it and then, getting older, was moving into creating entirely my own stories.

Well, what were some of the books that influenced you back then?

So, certainly back when I was very young, I can’t really recall. We have sort of gone through trying to work that out. It was a whole lot of really simple Golden Book readers. So, none of them stuck. So, the ones that stuck came later. There was one series about Irish setters, and they were adventure series where each…one was Big Red…and each one had a different Irish setter.

I remember reading Big Red.

Yeah, exactly. So all those…Hardy Boys, too. Read so many Hardy Boys. They always had much more interesting adventures than Nancy Drew, so I devoured Hardy Boys. And some of the classics, but really I was looking at the adventure stories, the mystery stories, and the stories with the animals.

So when did the fantasy side of things start to creep in?

So yeah, people always ask, where did that come from? And I always jokingly blame too many early Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. That supernatural-combined-with-the-mystery was perfect. But I think it was more, when it comes to stories, mythology has them, so I very quickly got into mythology. I knew the Dewey Decimal System number for the myth and folklore section. So I would be there pulling down those books when I sort of ran out of stories in my own area to read.

When you started writing as a young person, well, did you share your writing with other people? I always ask that because I did, and I found it was like, oh, people actually like the stories that I tell.

Exactly. Yeah. Because I was so young and I was telling stories before I could write them down, so, at that age, you don’t have any of that…when people get older, and they start thinking, do I want to share this or not? As a kid, no, of course you share it because you have created this thing. So certainly, early on, sharing everything with parents, siblings, etc., friends and so on. It’s only when you get older that you start double-guessing, do I want to actually share this?

Did you have any teachers that sort of encouraged your writing along the way in high school or around that time?

I did. I certainly did, certainly in both elementary and high school. I was doing a lot of writing and getting a lot of really good feedback on my writing. So I often joke that, you know, they really tried to steer me away from the fantasy, the supernatural, etc. “You could write normal things,” but the normal things were what interested me. So it’s good that they still encouraged me despite the fact that I was not necessarily writing the kinds of stories that they were hoping for.

I always tell a story that when I was about eleven, I wrote my first complete short story that I remember actually finishing, and it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So you could tell where my mind was early on. And there was a teacher who, you know, he was my junior high English teacher, and I showed it to him and he took it seriously, and he critiqued it and said, you know, “I don’t understand why your aliens to this and why does your character do that?” And I still credit that with taking it seriously, taking the writing seriously, with having helped set my mind on, “Well, I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to write better things going forward.”

It is, and it’s very important because, yes, even if it’s not necessarily what they’re hoping you would write, or it’s not a genre that they read, just that overall encouragement means a lot. Without that, I wouldn’t have gone on.

But you didn’t actually go immediately into writing. You studied psychology to begin with, I believe, is that right?

Yeah. I went to Western for psychology undergrad. I was planning on going on to masters and doctorate and becoming a psychologist. I was heading into grad school and realized I was heading into that kind of a career where there’d be a lot more schooling, and I would not be writing, because university was the one time where I didn’t have time to actually write fiction. So I thought, I’ve got this long time where I’m probably not going to be writing, do I want to wait that long before I try to at least…? My sort of goal was, maybe someday I’ll be able to be a part-time writer and part-time at some other career. So I switched gears there and went to college for computer programming. I had been doing that way back from the Commodore 64. It was a big interest of mine. So I did that. Got your typical corporate cubicle job that let me write and study the craft of writing.

Do you find…I mean, psychology would tend to tie into writing in some way. Did you find that what you studied in that field has been beneficial in your writing career? And the computer programming? I mean, I always say, nothing you do is wasted when you’re a writer. Have you found that?

It’s true. Because people always sort of look back and they say, you know, was that a waste, or when I see young people heading into college, university, and their ultimate career is writing, and they just want to totally focus on that. And I say, anything that you take is going to help. Psychology for characters, absolutely. Because it helps with my character backgrounds to know if I want a character who is like this at 35, what type of background did they probably have to get them there or what life experiences could they have had that get them where I want them to be at that age? And of course, programming meant that I did not have to hire anyone to, you know, code those early websites.

I had a Commodore 64 for years, and I did a lot of programming at the time, too, in BASIC, and I did some quite complicated things. You know, I created a whole music entry system to use that synthesizer chip that it had. And you had to put in like three different values for each note. And yet I did all that, and it worked. And then I thought, “But, you know, other people do it better than I do.” And I was never tempted to stick with programming because, again, it was more like, well, that takes a lot of time. I could be writing.

Commodore 64 with disk drive, monitor, and joystick.

It did. Yeah. I was doing the old text-based adventure game, so I was writing text-based adventure games, which of course took a whole lot of work just for a very short, short and simple one.

Well, your first novel was Bitten, which came out in 1999 or was sold in 1999. It came out in 2001. How did that come about? That’s kind of your breaking-in moment. Or had you had some short stories before that, or how did that work for you?

Yeah, I had had a couple of short stories published, but nothing significant. And I had been writing novels. So, when I made that choice to go into programming instead of going on to graduate school, that meant that I then knew that I had to get serious about writing. And it meant writing novels, joining writers’ groups, taking writing courses. So I was doing that. I was writing novels. I was writing novels that were to market. So whatever was…I had one that was, for example, a female private eye, in the time period when we were seeing a lot of that. When I got to…so, I finished three novels, no interest, no interest from publishers or agents. And then, I decided I was going to work on this one idea that I had for a book about female werewolves. And I figured nobody’s going to ever want this, so this is just totally for me. And it was all freeing that way, too, like not be saying, “I’m writing this in hopes of getting it published,” But just I’m tired of trying to get stuff published. I’m just going to write something for myself. Got it done, and of course, started thinking, “Well, is there any chance?” So I had a writing instructor take a look at it, and he thought that it had promise, so he offered to recommend me to an agent, and she took it on, and it took off from there.

And there’s been quite a few since then.

There has been, yeah.

So is it a fairly straightforward, you know, once that one came out, it was successful, and you’ve been doing it ever since?

Yeah. Not…certainly now people look back and say, well, clearly Bitten was successful, and I’m like, not actually, no. The publisher, my American publisher, bought the first two and then was not interested in a third book because they just weren’t selling. They started selling more with the third book. But yeah, you certainly get that where…they were successful enough that I was able to keep publishing, and from where I stand now, 20 years later, that’s the big measure of success, is not how much you make or how many copies you sell, but just can you keep finding a publisher to want more books?

Yeah, that sounds familiar.

Yeah.

Now, I’m going to ask you this, even though as somebody who’s worked in Canada as well. I think I know the answer. But have you ever…has being a Canadian author but published in the US market, has it been a good thing or a bad thing, or has it made any difference at all, do you think?

It’s been a good thing for me because certainly I make more. I mean, having that extra market…I mean, a Canadian bestseller is, what, 5,000 copies? I mean, that’s not going to give you an annual income even if you’re doing one per year. I mean, being able to have that US market, that’s where sort of the much bigger incomes coming from. And then that drives getting a UK publisher, getting the foreign publishers, and it’s all of that. I mean, Canada is great, but actually being able to make a living off of strictly being published in Canada would be tough.

Yeah. Well, let’s talk about what you have coming out this month. You know, two books in a month is not bad.

It’s weird, yeah,

And another one coming in October, I think.

Yeah. And it was kind of an odd thing because, yes, so what is my second middle grade came out early this month. There was supposed to be a standalone thriller coming out in August, because they usually obviously don’t keep them quite so close, but the standalone thriller got bumped up to the end of June. So I end up…because it’s the same publisher in Canada for them, Random House, and they didn’t see any crossover t you’ve got. You’ve got, like, your fantasy middle-grade book and your standalone adult thriller, they’re like, “There is no crossover.” So it’s not like I’m going to be competing with myself. It just makes it tougher for me promoting to be making sure to mention that I have two books coming out.

Well, and I did want to ask you, even before we start talking about The Gryphon’s Lair, which is the middle grade, um….when did you make the step into the. Both middle grade and young adult markets, I guess?

Yeah. So for a young adult, that came back…so, the first one came out 2008. Would have meant I was writing it in 2005. And that was back when you were seeing a little bit more interest in young adult books. I had a daughter who was hitting that age, she was twelve, thirteen, and she wanted to read Bitten. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” So I said, how would I write something that is that type of book in that world, but with teenage characters. So that became The Summoning. And then after it was written, you were seeing publishers wanting that, because that’s when Twilight started taking off. So, they were looking for more paranormal YA, and I happened to have some. So then that one sold. Middle grade took a little longer. I have sons, too, so when they got to be the middle-grade age, I was writing with a friend (Melissa Marr), she also has a son that age, and we decided that we would co-write middle grade for our son. So that was the first trilogy, the Blackwell Pages, based on Norse mythology. And then I kind of took a break from middle grade there and then went back. Last year was the first in this new series.

OK. I have to ask you, does your daughter read your books? Did she read that? Because I have a daughter who’s nineteen now and the only one of mine she’s read are ones I’ve actually read out loud to her, and she really seems to be reluctant to read my stuff. And I think it’s because if she doesn’t like it, she wouldn’t know how to tell me.

I know. And that’s really tough. Now, my daughter reads everything, and she’s obviously, she’s like twenty-eight now, so if she read everything…

She’s probably read Bitten by now.

Yeah, exactly. She reads early…she reads sort of drafts when they’re at the point where I want her to take a look at it. She helps with that. Now, my sons are a different thing. Yes. They read the trilogy that I wrote them, but let’s just say that they are not exactly saying, “Hey, Mom, what else do you have?”

So I had, I still have, a niece, when she was a teenager–this is a long time ago now, probably my first book–and she said she didn’t want to read it because she didn’t want to know what was going on in her uncle’s head. Which I thought was funny.

Exactly. I mean, that is the weird thing, too, if you write. Yeah. Bitten has some sex scenes in it, and it was like, yeah, do you really want to know what your mom’s going to write for that scene? No, the answer is no.

Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. Well, we’re gonna talk primarily about The Gryphon’s Lair book, but we’ll also mention Every Step She Takes, which is the standalone that’s coming out, because we’re going to talk about your creative process and it will be interesting for me to hear the difference between your planning and writing for an adult novel, and your planning and writing for the younger age group. But first of all, how about a synopsis about The Gryphon’s Lair?

So, The Gryphon’s Lair is book two in a series. The basic concept is that we’ve got this set in a fantasy world, completely fantasy world, with monsters. This world has monsters, but they’re based on science. So, there’s no magic in this world. If you’re going to have a, say, a basilisk that can turn people into a stone, it can’t really do that, but it can shoot a neurotoxin that can paralyze someone. So you’re doing things that are science-based rather than magic-based. The main character is a princess. I mean, there are a lot of princess books out there. I wanted to take my try at going ahead and doing that in a slightly different way. And she is a twin. She’s supposed to become queen, and her brother is supposed to become the Royal Monster Hunter. That’s how this always works. And she would much rather be the Royal Monster Hunter. He would make a better king.

So, an accident happens and they’re able to switch places. So, in the book one, we saw her first sort of forays as the Royal Monster Hunter, book two, we’ve got, she is in charge of a young gryphon, because while it’s called A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, the slaying part is pretty light. It’s really more like being a monster conservator or a monster ranger, where you’re trying to help people live with, you know, monsters being in that land. And sort of moving the monsters out when they get in, killing them if you have to, but it’s more about a conservationist idea. So, she is raising a young orphan gryphon, and it becomes a little big and dangerous. So in book two, she has to take it into the mountains where the gryphons live and try to take it back home.

Sounds like a great setup for a story.

It’s a lot of fun.

Maybe just a brief bit about Every Step She Takes, too. When I say they’re coming this month, I should explain to listeners that we’re recording this in June. I guess Gyphon’s Lair is already out, right?

Yes. And then, yeah, every step she takes comes out on the 30th.

So it’ll be out when this airs, which goes live, which will probably be…it might be August. So if you’re hearing this, you can get these books.

Exactly.

So, Every Step She Takes, maybe a little bit about that.

Yeah. Every Step She Takes, standalone thriller. It’s about a woman, Genevieve, who is living in Rome, and she’s living a very ordinary life. She’s a music teacher, has a boyfriend. She’s very happy with this life. She’s a former American. And she gets this package addressed to Lucy Calahan, which is a name she hasn’t used in 10 years. Turns out that she was the victim of a scandal when she was 18. It was a celebrity scandal, and in trying to get out of that, she ended up finally just leaving and coming…and going abroad, and ended up in Rome. Now she’s getting a call from somebody who was involved, who wants to make peace with it, who wants, who has come to understand that her role in it was not what she thought and called Genevieve back to make peace. And she goes back to make peace, and the woman ends up dead. So, that’s kind of a problem, because she is dead and Genevieve is being framed for it.

So these are two very different books…

Very different books, exactly.

So let’s talk about how these things come about. I mean, it’s a cliche to ask, where do your ideas come from, and yet, it’s a valid question. Maybe if you don’t like it that way, I often say, what was the seed from which this novel grew?

Exactly. Exactly. And for the Royal Guide series, that was actually…it comes from two things. So it comes from video games. Witcher. I was playing Witcher years ago, playing probably the second or third one, and thinking, “You know, I really like the monster hunter concept. I really it. I feel like I’d love to do something with it in fiction. Not that idea obviously, but just that very basic monster-hunting concept. And I played around with it as a young adult book. So the book was pretty much the concept was the same in that it was a princess who had a twin brother, they really wanted to switch roles. I wrote about 5,000 words of it, and it wasn’t really gelling. Just something wasn’t working. And I put it away, and every now and then I would come back to it and say, “I really like this concept. What’s not working?” And one day just had this epiphany of, “What if it was middle grade? What if, instead of being seventeen, she’s twelve.” So that, of course, meant a total rewrite, but when I rewrote, I could see, yes, that absolutely works with…it had that level of fun and lightness that it needed. The original version with the teens made it much darker, and it just wasn’t quite gelling. But in the middle-grade version, it just popped.

And that one came from sort of…not exactly random, but, you know, just something else that you were doing. Is that kind of typical of where ideas come from? They can come from anywhere, in other words?

Yeah, it certainly can be, where it’ll come from something that sort of sparks an idea, and then I run with it, and by the time you get to the final product, it doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the original concept, or the original where I sort of took that from. I mean, nobody’s going to read Royal Guide and think, “Aha, she was clearly influenced by Witcher,” which is a very adult and very different story. But yes, I can sort of say that that’s where it started, and then my brain keeps on spinning on that concept until I make it my own.

On the mystery side, is it any different?

No, it’s very similar. Certainly with the, sort of grain for Every Step She Takes, we see a lot of things now, particularly when we see #MeToo coming out, where we see these stories of young women who made mistakes in some way and the way they were demonized for them. I feel like, I hope we would not necessarily do at this point, where we can look, where, at the time, it was very clearly the young woman had seduced the guy who was in power, etc. But I was fascinated by the way that we presumed that she was guilty, even when you can look back now and she would have been like, you know, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, early twenties, and the guy’s like forty or something, and yet we still somehow see that Lolita complex, where clearly she was the instigator, and she’s the one who got all of the fallout. That’s where that idea started from, but of course, once I took it and ran with it, it does not bear any resemblance to any actual case.

Now, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? You know, are you a pantser a plotter? There’s another cliche question for you, but what does it look like to you?

Yeah, I think like a lot of writers, I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’ve developed my own sort of process by now, where, when I go into a book, I have a very good idea of that Act 1. I know what the setup is going to be. So if we were to take something like Royal Guide, for the first book, I know exactly what the setup is: these two twins, and they’re in the wrong positions, and we’re going to have…a gryphon is attacking, and we’re going to have, the brother goes off after it, sister is left behind, and she’s going to sneak off after them. Things are going to go horribly bad, and we’re going to lose our current Royal Monster Hunter, which then means that that position is now open for someone who’s way too young. So that’s Act 1. And I know that going in. I know my characters. I know my setting. Once you get past that, I know the major points. So I would know, how do these two add up switching rules? What is she going to have to do to prove herself? What is her voyage going to be? What do I want? I mean, often in a story like that, you get this very elongated training session, where a character is going to be the Royal Monster Hunter, so now let’s spend half the book showing her in training. And I knew I did not want that. So, how do I work around that? So, I would know all the major parts, and the final act, what she’s going to face down, she’s obviously going to face down that, you know, gryphon that killed her aunt in the early part of the book. She’s going to have to come full circle and face down that gryphon. So I know that’s what’s going to have to happen. I have no clue when I start writing where this is going to happen or how it’s going to happen. Because, if I was to go and decide exactly how that happens, by the time I reach that point in the book, it would no longer fit.

On the mystery side, you often…they’re often quite intricate, and you have to be careful about what information you provide and when. Do you do more detailed planning for mysteries than you would for a straight-ahead kind of fantasy story?

You would think that I would, but I actually don’t, and it’s because a lot of the mystery is shaped through editing. So I will go into it certainly knowing who I think is the killer, etc., that could change. And mystery fans hate hearing that you get like partway through the book and change who the killer is, but it’s not like you’re being cheated because then you continue writing that, and then you finish that book and go back and you craft and edit and you put in the correct clues, you get rid of the clues that pointed in the wrong direction. It’s not as if you sort of go off on a 90-degree angle and cheat halfway through. A lot of it really is formed through that editing process of saying, OK, now that I am done, where did I put in clues that led nowhere? I mean, yes, you want some red herrings, you don’t want too many of them, or where am I missing clues that would have pointed towards this, and going back and filling all of that in.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you like, know, a quill pen under the tree on a piece of parchment writer or…?

Computer. Yeah, because I grew up on computers. Now, I did write…my earliest stories were on a typewriter, and so, having done the longhand and done typewriters in my past, I’m still that generation that remembers what a glorious thing word processors were. Like, you did not…you could edit to your heart’s content. You didn’t have to be, you know, getting it right the first time. You could go in and edit and change things. So, yes, totally computer-based.

Do you work at home or do you go out…I mean, right now, we’re all working at home, basically, but…

Exactly. Yeah. No, I’ve got a writing cabin in the back field. So I live rural. We live on 10 acres or so, and so I’ve got a little cabin in the way, far back. It’s off-grid. No Internet. No, you know, everything. So I just go back there and work.

Sounds nice.

It is!

I was going to mention, on the word-processor side, since you are familiar with the Commodore 64, you probably remember a program called PaperClip?

Yeah, yep.

That was my first word processor, and for a long time, in my early books, they all had 10-page chapters, because you got 499 lines of text in a PaperClip file, and that was as far as you could go.

Right, yeah, exactly.

And that works out to about ten pages of manuscript format. So for a while, all my books had the same length of chapters because of PaperClip.

I think mine, still, if you were to look at my chapters, they’d probably all be between eight and 12 pages.

Yeah. I think I still fall into that kind of a zone as well. So, you talked a little bit about working on the mystery side, on revision, and so forth, but in general, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I write a first draft right through. I don’t stop. If I decide that I’m going to make a change in plot, I mean, something as drastic even as getting halfway through a book and saying, “OK, I’ve decided that this character’s father is now dead,” even though he’s been alive until this point, I’m going to decide that he died, like, ten years ago, I don’t actually stop and go back and fix it up. I just keep on going as if he’s been dead for ten years and making lots of notes on things that I want to change. So, once it’s done, put it aside for a couple of months, come back to it. Do usually once sort of go-through on the computer, which is more of a revision one, where I’m moving stuff around, adding stuff in, you know, killing off father, you know, ten years ago, etc., going and fixing all of that. And then, if I have time, doing a round of paper edits, because even though I’m so computer-based for my writing, I still find that I edit best on paper, paper and pen, so I can see it, and it looks like an actual book story. And then it goes off to the editor after that.

Yeah, it’s…I’m a little bit older than you, but I also started on a typewriter and then switched to the computer, and the way that you write sounds very much like the way that I do, too, and I was…who was it I talked to? I guess it was John Scalzi I talked to…one of my very first interviews on here, and he talked about how he does a rolling revision, but he’s always written on a computer. And he never went back to that time when you pretty much had to do a single draft all the way through before you did your revisions. And he thought that there is a connection between having once worked on a typewriter and doing it that way. I don’t know about that.

I don’t know, because, yes, certainly in my early word-processing days, even with Bitten and my early novels, I did that, where I would write, and I would go back and edit and I would write and go back and edit. But I got so caught in that endless editing, and I would be editing things that I would later just cut right out because I’m pretty ruthless in the revision and I will cut out entire chapters. I will lift out 20,000 words and put in 20,000 words of stuff. It’s much harder to do that if I’ve spent time perfecting this, you know, chapter. It’s easier to pull out a first draft chapter than a chapter that I have polished, you know, five times, so…

And the working on paper resonates with me too. I am currently doing page proofs for my next book from DAW, The Moonlit World, which, by the way, is werewolves and vampires. But yeah, you know, once you get to page proofs, there’s stuff that you can’t believe that you left in the original file that you sent because it just somehow comes out differently when you see it in print than when you see it on the screen.

It does, yeah.

Now, once you’ve got a draft, you mentioned that your daughter reads stuff, do you have other beta readers? Do you do that, or are you self-contained more?

Yeah. It completely depends on what the project is. If I’m gonna be working on a series, if I’m partway through a series, there’s fewer early editors at that point. But if it’s a brand-new standalone or if it’s a new first novel or if it’s a new novella, I’m more likely to send it to my daughter, or I’ve got critique partners, and they will see it before my editor does. Now, if it’s, you know, say book three in a series, book four in a series, it’s going to go to my editor first, because by that point, I kind of know what I’m doing, and there’s not as much of that, “Is this working?” The editor knows what to expect, and I can go there. And then a critique partner or my daughter may come in at a later point if they just say, “I’d just like to read it.”

What sorts of things do you get…you mentioned, “Is this working?” Is that kind of the focus of that level of reading?

Yes, certainly for that first–if it’s standalone, if it’s first in a series–I’m really sending it to somebody to say, just generally, “Is this working? Is this flowing? Do you see any major issues with it? Do you see that it’s too close to anything that you may have read?,” even, because you never know, you can send it to somebody, and they’re like, “I just read something that’s very similar to this recently.” So, it helps to have that totally trustworthy critique partner who, before the editorial process, can help me get it cleaned up, because, by the time the editor sees it, I don’t want to be embarrassed.

One thing I forgot to ask was, are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I am fast, and I do a fast first draft. I think it’s because of that mow right through it, not stopping to edit. I want to stay in the voice. I want to stay in the mood, and I want to keep that going. So I’m going to…now I’m not nearly as fast as some people I have met. I am relatively fast in getting that first draft done.

It’s always relative. There’s…no matter how fast you are, there’s somebody else…

Yeah, exactly.

…who says, “Oh, I did a hundred and fifty thousand words in a week.” When you get to the editorial stage, what sorts of things do you generally find the editor commenting on? What kind of changes are requested, if any?

There are always…it’s always interesting to go back and see because there are always those things that, in the back of my mind, I knew was a problem. But even after 30-odd books, I’m still at the stage where, “Yeah. OK, that’s probably a problem,” but I’m hoping it’s just me because fixing it is a lot of work. And then they come back and say, “Yes, that is a problem,” OK, thanks. And then they say it independently, where I don’t say, “Is this a problem?” I do, sometimes, if I’m concerned. But that independent verification of, maybe a plot point that I feel like, eh, that’s not quite gelling for me. Or they might come back…certainly in a series, especially, coming back with, like, “We need more of a reminder of who these characters are, we need less of a reminder of, you know, plot points from previous books because we don’t want to…if someone hasn’t read previous books, we don’t want them to be not willing to go back. If they already know who the killer is in the past two books, they’re not going to want to go back and read them, right?

You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. How has that been?

It’s been good. Ninety percent of the time it’s such a good experience. They bring up the things…I always say that, you know, most of my editors, there’s about 80 percent of what they say I dead-on know, “Yes, you’re totally right. Either I already knew it or, as soon as they say it, I see it. Then it’s about 15 percent where I’m not sure, and I have to think more about it. And it’s only about five percent where I can say, “I understand what you mean, but that’s not right for my book.” So, 90 percent of my editors have fallen into that group. There’s always the occasional one that you’re just not going to gel with. Whatever I’m working on, they are looking for something different. They very clearly are looking for a different kind of story than the type of story that I tell. And I can’t sort of twist myself to give them the type of story they want, because that’s not what my vision is for that book.

You were talking about the editors saying things that you kind of knew in the back of your head. My main editor, of course, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books. And all of us who work for DAW, like Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda, and all those people. We all have this thing in the back of the head, “What would Sheila say?” And even though, you know…I do exactly the same thing. I will know that there’s something there that, you know, “I bet she says something,” but I’ll think, “Maybe not.” And sure enough, she always comes back and says, “You know, I didn’t…this needs…whatever,” you know. So…

Yeah, this needs to work. This little area here, this motivation or this plot point just needs a bit of work.

And that’s what editors are for. When I work with new writers, you know, sometimes, I’ll run into people who are concerned about what editors will do to their work. And I say they will generally make it better. That is really what they’re about.

Exactly. There’s a lot of fear, I think, with new writers, they get some kind of feeling, or they’ve heard stories where the editor is going to demand bizarre changes, like demand that you change your werewolves into vampires or your female main character into a male main character. That doesn’t happen. What they’re in there doing is just helping you shape that story, because it’s hard to tell when you’re that close to your story, whether or not it’s actually working.

And speaking of characters, one thing I kind of forgot to ask along the way was how you go about developing characters. I mean, you know who you need in the story, from the big picture. But then how do you flesh them out? Do you do a lot of character sketches or writing in their voice or any of these various tricks that some people use, or how does that work for you?

Yeah…I’ve sort of learned to do this combination where I certainly do dive in at the beginning, and I want to know who they are, what’s their biggest fear, what’s their main goal, what do they want most from life, and what do they want most from this situation? And, you know, what are some of their hobbies? What are some of their interests? What are some of their dislikes, their past experiences, all that psychology stuff? But I still have to get into the writing because I can certainly say that if it’s the first book in a series or it’s a standalone novel, when I start writing, I can say the character is like this, and by the time I’ve hit, you know, ten, twenty thousand words, that character has shifted. And then I have to go back and adjust that early part.

Yeah, that’s often a revision step for me is to make sure that the character’s consistent.

Yeah.

Do you ever find, as some do, that minor characters become major characters without your knowing it was going to happen?

It definitely happens, where, yes, you come up with what you expect to be a minor character…I always use one example from my first book, Bitten. So, there was this renegade werewolf, he was one of the bad guys, and in the first draft, I killed him off at the end of chapter three. But then was like, “I really like him. I feel like he has more to him.” So I thought, OK, fine, I’ll keep him alive till the end of the book. I kept him alive till the end of the book, and I killed him, and then I still was like, I still feel like he had more. So then, I let him live. He eventually ended up becoming part of the pack and becoming a major character. And in the last book of the series, he appears to have died, and it was kind of an in-joke for everybody who knows how hard I try to kill this character early on.

Well, I did want to ask you about series writing. I’ve been on a panel–at CanCon, I think it was–talking about writing series–the most I’ve ever done as a five-book series–what the struggles of writing a series? The challenges and the rewards, I guess.

Yeah. I guess…the rewards are easy because that readership growth and that readership loyalty, that, if the series takes off, if it finds its audience, they are right there hungry for the next book. And that’s a whole lot easier than standalones, where you’re reinventing the wheel every single time and looking for a fresh audience. So, the series has that built-in audience if it works. The drawbacks are obviously, especially when you go into a long series, running out of ideas, running out of originality. Certainly, with the Otherworld, the only reason that it got to 13 books was because I changed narrators. So, every few books, one of the minor, one of the secondary, characters would become the narrator, and the other characters would fall into the background. So, it would instead be a story about this character’s corner of the world, so you’d start with werewolves for two books, and then spin-off to a witch and get her corner of the world for two books. And then, you spun off to a ghost and get her corner of the world for a book. That kept it going through 13. Nowadays, I don’t think I would ever get that long because even by 13, by changing characters, by the time I finished the series and went on to something else, I realized how tired I really getting. I didn’t see it until I went on and did something new.

I often wonder about the challenges of continuity…I mean, even in a trilogy, continuity could be a problem. Did you do something to try to keep track of all those little details that just pile your pile up?

Yeah, yeah. There’s the series bibles. And now what I do is my daughter is in charge of those and she…when she’s doing her reading, she’ll usually read one of my books for just that, you know, for fun and for general feedback, but then later on, after it’s completely done, past proofs, everything, she’ll take it and enter it into the bible. So if there’s new information, it goes in there. And then, on the next book, when she goes and does that first read-through, she can first read through the bible, and she will in that read through notice, “OK, Mom, you said this here, and it seems to contradict something.” You know, something like, you get a minor character’s age wrong, you know, you said they were twenty-eight here, and they’re twenty-seven now in book two. Unless they regressed, that does not happen.

Yeah. There’s that and, the other one that that’s happened to me, is that because I’m writing…you know, sort of like you, I have a kind of a general idea, but then I’m making up a lot of stuff as I go..and this was in the five-book young adult series. And I made up something in the first book. And by the time I got to the third book, I really wished I had not made up that particular aspect of how the magic worked, is what it was, because I wanted them to be able to do something, and I had shut that door in my face without even knowing I was doing it, three books before.

Yeah. And it really is that you kind of learn to try to not give absolutes. You try to, you know, learn with that first series, to try to, in future series, instead of saying, “It’s not possible to do this,” you will say, “It’s usually done this way,” or “As far as we know, it’s not possible to do this..

“It’s never been done.” That’s a good one.

Exactly!

 Well, let’s move on to–this is where the reverb should come in again–the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? And why do you think any of us write? And in particular, why do you write the kind of stuff that you choose to write?

Exactly. And for me, I think it still is…I’m still that reader. I’m still the kid who was the reader who wanted to tell stories. And it still is for me. You know, I love reading other people’s work because I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, you can read someone else’s story, and it’s entertaining in a way that is original to me and fresh. However, writing my own story, it’s exactly what I want to write. It’s exactly the type of story that I most want to tell. So, all my favorite themes, my favorite tropes, my favorite character types, archetypes, are going to be in there because that’s what I’m doing. I always, still, because I started as a reader who was trying to write to entertain herself, I’ve kept that where, I still have to be my own first reader. And if I’m bored with a story, I need to stop and look at it and say, “Where did I lose interest?” Because for now, it still is, I love writing, and I always tell a story of…I think I had about three or four books out, and I was on a panel, and somebody said, “Now that you’re doing this for a living, do you still love writing?” And so they went down the panel, and when it got to me, I was, “I absolutely still love this. I can’t believe that I can make a living doing this.” And after the panel, one of the panelists said, “Oh, honey, you just wait until you’re at Book 10, that that will change.” And I’m at 35, whatever it is. And no, that has not changed. And I think that’s really important for me, that I still love what I’m doing and I still can’t believe that they actually pay me for this.

Well, on a bigger scale, what do you think is the impetus for telling stories for all of us who do this?

Yeah, and I don’t even…it’s really hard to say. I mean, certainly, the reader feedback is lovely. I mean, that sort of moment when somebody tells you how much a book of yours meant to them. And it can be that it meant something because it came at a difficult time in their life and it provided escape, etc., or it can just be, “I love these books, and I’ve read them to death.” And that’s a really important thing, and it’s a wonderful ego boost, and it feels like you’ve shared something of yourself with them. But I’m not even sure whether that’s the main thing. I mean, that’s obviously important, and the feedback is wonderful. But if I was to say that I could never get feedback again, would I keep on writing? I would. It probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable because I would be constantly worrying, are people out there actually liking what I am writing? That feedback helps to reassure me, but I just feel like, for me, it’s that storytelling. I feel like for a lot of us–I mean, when people say they want to become a writer and you tell–and once they really realize what that means, I think they figure they’re going to write a book and make a lot of money, or…I always figured, as a kid, if I could finish a book, like finishing a 100,000-word book would be so huge that very clearly it would get published. Ha-ha-ha, no. And I think once they realize…I’ve had so many people have said to me, “I wanted to be a writer, but then I got to know you and saw you, like, on a personal level how hard you work,” and said, “I don’t actually want it that badly.” And I’m like, that’s OK because I do.

I mean, I’m twenty…well, more than 60 books with all the nonfiction and everything…and I still love writing. And the thing is, you know, the whole thing of would I do it even I wasn’t knowing that people were reading it, well, I did, you know, a good nine or ten novels before I published anything. So I guess…and I was still enjoying the mere fact of writing the stories, even though I wasn’t finding a readership.

It is, because certainly with those early books, the unpublished ones, I would finish it and it wouldn’t sell. And there’s that moment of, “I shouldn’t even bother continuing,” but I couldn’t do that because every time I would go back and say, “I’ll right this next one for me,” because I couldn’t not write even when it wasn’t working out.

Well, and what are you working on now?

What I’m working on now is a young-adult thriller. I’ve taken a couple of years off of doing young adult while I got my middle grade going, and I wanted to come up with an idea, I felt like I wasn’t coming up with the right concept for next one. So I am working on that.

And where can people find you online?

You can find me at KelleyArmstrong.com. And on Twitter, I’m relatively active on Twitter and Facebook (@KelleyArmstrongAuthor). Not so much on Instagram, but I occasionally remember to host mostly pet pictures.

Yeah. I always struggle with Instagram. I would like to be more active on it, but I keep forgetting about that one somehow.

Exactly. I do, too.

And perhaps should mention everybody should know that it’s Kelley with an e, K-e-l-l-e-y.

It is. Yes. Although I also have the domain without the extra E, so if you type it in wrong, it should redirect you.

I should do that with Willett because that second T is constantly dropped off. Even if they put it in right–like, the Saskatchewan Book Awards judges put out their comments from this year’s, and I had a book nominated, and in the first part of it they put two Ts on it, by the time they got to the end of it, they dropped that second.

Yes, it does. It is not…I mean, I get so much that doesn’t have the E, that was one of the first things I did was snag that domain that didn’t have the second E.

I should look and see if it’s available. That would be a good thing.

Yeah.

All right. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thank you!

That was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.

I did. Thank you very much.

Well, bye for now.

OK, bye-bye.

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 5: Arthur Slade

An hour-long conversation with Arthur Slade, bestselling author of twenty-two novels for young readers, including Dust (which won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for children’s literature), and The Hunchback Assignments (winner of the TD Canada Canadian Children’s Literature Award), focusing on his new young adult fantasy novel Crimson.

The Introduction:

Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In addition to the award-winning novels mentioned above, he co-created the graphic novel Modo: Ember’s End. An interesting fact that the Art likes to point out is that he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk while listening to heavy metal, and the strangest thing of all is he does it in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which, I can assure you is not as fictional as it sounds.

Website: arthurslade.com

Twitter: @arthurslade

Instagram: @arthurslade

Arthur Slade’s Amazon page

The Show:

Art says he was inspired to write fantasy by The Hobbit. His Grade 4 teacher read it out loud to his class, and he says it was the first book read to them that he really “fell into.” In fact, he was so “agog” at it that when his parents took him away from school for a week to go on a family trip to Disneyland he actually felt kind of sad he was going to miss a whole week of the The Hobbit.

He was a creative kid who always wrote “bits and pieces,” but it wasn’t until Grade 11 that writing really took hold: “I love to blame my English teacher for my career,” he says. She had the class write a short story, and Art wrote, “Under Heaven, Over Hell” (“If you want to get your teacher’s attention, make sure you put a swear word in there!”). He got a grade of 100, which he found “kind of astounding.” That was his “first big reward” as a writer, and he carried on from there.

Art wrote six novels that were never published. His sixth, a novel for adults, he sent to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, which offers a manuscript evaluation service. The reader wrote that Art had written an amazing novel for young adults, which incensed him: he felt insulted that he’d been accused of writing for young adults. And yet, that was a moment that changed the direction of his career.

Art notes that he has a kind of “sparse style,” perfect for writing for young adults and for children, so once he got over the “insult,” he decided to try it, and the next book he wrote, the seventh, was accepted right away. “So I’m really glad that that reader insulted me so deeply, because it really opened up all these doors for me that I might not have thought about.”

One reason he likes to write for young readers is that he loved books the most between the ages of eight to thirteen. “Back then, I could just disappear into a book. It was really an amazing immersive experience.” So now, when he’s writing, he’s often thinking about that younger version of himself, and it’s natural to make the characters that age.

The other reason he likes writing for young readers is that “everything is fresh to them, they’re learning everything for the first time, even if they’re sixteen or seventeen and they believe they know everything—and believe me, the real teenagers do—it’s all new. They seem to have this new energy.”

As part of his ongoing experimentation with self-publishing, Art has written a novel called Amber Fang with characters a little bit older, twenty or twenty-one, still young, but a bit more knowledgeable about the world, so they can make jokes about Shakespeare and other references that wouldn’t work for a thirteen-year-old.

Art says he had the original idea for Crimson (and even wrote a novel based on it) when he was seventeen. He threw out all of that original book except for one character, Mansren, who, although bound at the beginning of the story, was “almost a God,” a being of pure magic, completely malevolent and yet capable of being charming. What would happen, he wondered, when someone like that was suddenly unleashed?

Crimsonis about Fen, who is thirteen when the book starts, and fifteen a couple of chapters in. In the very first scene, she loses her hand because she has stolen something, leaving her able to perform only odd jobs around her village.

Fen lives in a world that has been controlled by a Queen for a thousand years. The Queen uses magic that she mines from the ground, in the form of red dust, to control everyone. She can make people into whatever shape she wants, so she has soldiers who look just like her, and she can also control what people think.

Every once in a while, there are people who go “crimson”: their hair suddenly turns red and they acquire magical ability. This happens to Fen: her hair suddenly goes red, which means she has an immediate death sentence. She has to flee the village before the Queen’s guards come after her. What she gradually learns is that there is something new growing where her hand was, and that’s the magic that she has. Eventually she runs into Mansren.

Art notes that he’s never really tackled a full-fledged fantasy novel until now: he’d mostly moved into dark fantasy, real-life stories where fantasy squeezes itself in. He found writing a full-blown fantasy challenging. “It was so hard to think about the magic and think about how you make everything feel real. I can write a book set in 1930s and do all this research and really make that feel real, but when I’m making this other world, how do I make people believe that they are someplace entirely different? That was kind of a major step for me.”

Art says if he’s going to spend a year on a story, there has to be something in it he really cares about. “Part of that the idea behind Crimson is this queen, because she’s so powerful, has basically destroyed all the cultures and is trying to reshape everything to her. She has even made it so that people only have first names, because it’s too complicated to have last name.”

The Queen wants the world to be perfect and simple. As a result, all the world’s cultures are being lost. It’s against the law for people to speak any languages than the language the Queen has decreed.

“When I was thinking about character Fen,” Art notes, “I was also thinking about my own daughter. My wife and I adopted from China in 2010, so it’s a while ago now, and I realized I’d never written anything where she could go, ‘You know, that’s me in the story. That’s someone just like me.’”

So Fen is a character who comes from a Chinese-like culture. (Although he made sure to say to his daughter that Fen was not her, “because some horrible things happen to the character.”) That feeling of doing something that his daughter would read and that would reflect her culture was really important to Art, and helped energize him while he was doing the research.

Some of that research, he says with a laugh, “is in my house all the time, walking around.” He’d also read about China for a long time because of adopting from that country, and in fact, the place where the book begins is based on the part of China where his daughter comes from, and where he spent a week. “I really wanted to re-create what it felt like there….to be a reflection of my daughter’s character.”

Art says he writes very much by the seat of the pants, rather than plotting things out in detail. He knows the basic story, but a lot of his process begins with the first chapter. “I sit down and start writing it.” He says it takes forever because he’s thinking about what the world will look like, and he’s trying to put everything together in that first chapter. “It’s like my brain is unlocking all these little kind of mysteries about what could happen next. I follow the breadcrumbs, in a way, that that I’ve left or that I’ve discovered just by the process of going through that the first chapter.”

After that, he tends to write a few little scenes that he know will appear somewhere further along. Getting to a scene he’d first thought about three months earlier is like a reward, although the reward is, “Now you have to make it to the next place that you dreamed about sixmonths ago!”

Eventually, he says, after many words and often many mistakes, he gets to the ending, which usually comes to him about the halfway point, once he has a lot of the characters and events in play. He says he’s learned it’s okay to have a wrong ending: you can fix it later.

The only time he tried to do a really details synopsis was for his novel Flickers, and he says he found that book the hardest to write: working like that seemed to mess up his process, so he’s kind of scared of it now, even though, “I’d love to do it. That seems to make more sense to me. Everything is all laid out and you just write this much every day, but that’s not how my brain works so far.”

Everyone works differently, Art agrees, and when he teaches writing, he always starts by saying, “This is what works for me, take whatever is helpful for you, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.”

The magic system in Crimson unfolded as he wrote, and solved problems—like the magical armour of the Queen’s guards, a kind of second skin that they never take off. He had to figure out how that worked. In the process, he wrote some 30,000 or 40,000 words that ended up cut from the novel, from the point of view of one of the Queen’s guards. While writing that helped him understand how the process worked and its effect on the men involved, in the end, he didn’t need all that detail. “It was really kind of exploring.”

Another problem: Fen has lost her hand, and something new is growing there—what is it? It’s magical, but what kind of magic. “It’s that whole process of finding the words that make it sound real, finding a way to make himself and the reader believe that the magic is real, and indicate what the limits are, and how uncontrollable it can be. “It’s someone who is learning, not sure if the magic is even part of her or if it’s something else working through her, partly because it just doesn’t work when she wants it to.”

Waking up one morning and find you’re a completely different person is a terrifying idea for young people, Ed suggests, and Art agrees: “In some ways it’s like puberty, except overnight, and people are going to kill you.”

One reason so many words were cut was that originally the book was going to be a back-and-forth between Fen and Marcus, but when his editor read it, she said, “Oh, this is amazing, this is great…and by the way, we should cut out that character, you know, the one that takes up half the novel.”

Art likes stories that “just don’t slow down,” and realized the editor was right. The actual rewriting didn’t take that long: he likened it to a woodcarver cutting a sculpture out of wood. He says he could quickly see, “This is how the book was meant to be.”

“I’m just really thankful, because that’s what editors can do. A good editor will look at it and go, ‘You know, this is actually what you meant to do,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, I am that smart.’”

Art notes that when you’re self-publishing, you have to pay for an editor, and they’ll typically only take one pass through the book. He notes that working with an editor from a traditional publisher can be extremely frustrating if they don’t “get” your work, but a lot of the time, they’ll actually find out what’s missing, something to do with a character, maybe, or the overall tone. “That’s what a really good editor does.”

He adds sometimes editors will say something mysterious (he thinks maybe they take a course in how to say mysterious things to authors to motivate them). For his novel Dust, the editor said, “You know, there just seems to be something missing from that second last chapter.”  He looked at it, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and suddenly a new aspect of the chapter came clear to him, a whole scene that wouldn’t have appeared if she hadn’t made that comment.

Art says he tries to make his submitted manuscript “as clean as possible” so his editor doesn’t have to do a lot of work, but he doesn’t do the really fine line-by-line polishing until after the editor has seen a draft. He says he’s sometimes amazed by the themes editors find in his work, though afterwards he says, “Oh, yeah, that is what it’s about, that’s exactlywhat I was thinking.”

Writing is a collaborative art, a conversation with readers, in a way, Art says. Rather like editors, “They’re bringing all their own experiences to the book, so they will see things in a different way.”

He likes the term used for his podcast, worldshaping, rather than the more commonly used term worldbuilding.”It’s a process of taking what you already have, the clay of this world we live in, and shaping it into something else.” He notes that in Crimson, the Queen’s realm is based on the Roman Empire, and his main character has a Chinese-like background. “I’m not building something new, I’m taking something that already was there and shaping it so that it can fit into this other world that I’m imagining.”

Art says the reason for writing these kinds of stories ultimately boils down to “Because it’s there…because I can, or you can.” He says when the first image of a story comes to him, like that of Fen knowing she’s about to have her hand cut off, “there’s a kind of rush to it…It’s not a real event in terms of a memory, but it feels almost as real as a memory, and so I want to create it and make it as real as a memory of something that has really happened.

Creating a novel, and feeling like it worked out, “that you made this new thing,” he says, is the real pay-off for him. (Although he’s not averse to “cold, hard cash,” either.)

“I like that whole experience, and I get a high from it,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine just watching movies, I have to create my own movies. I can’t imagine just reading books, I have to create my own books.”

He thinks one reason people like his books is because they often include characters who are fighting against something larger than themselves, while coping with a disability or something else that holds them back. “People respond to that.”

They also respond to his style of writing: it moves ahead quickly, but still has emotion in it.

Art says is first and main goal is to entertain, but, he adds, “I guess I like making people think of different things, or perhaps getting to them to look at the story or the characters in a different way.”

He gives as an example the hunchbacked main character from The Hunchback Assignments. “I really loved the idea of him not being this beautiful handsome prince who conquers all the dragons. I love that idea because it kind of twists the normal Disney version on its head, and says, ‘You can be unattractive and you can be a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent character, too. To make it more interesting, he does have this ability to change his shape and look like other people, so he can become beautiful, and is always trying to, not only just battle the outside forces, but the forces that are inside him, saying, ‘You kow you’re not good enough, you’re not attractive.’”

Art says it’s important for him to crate characters that are different in some way. “Anybody who’s a geek or a nerd like me, you always felt a little different growing up, and you felt like you were in a different place, and so that’s why I enjoy that process. And if that makes somebody who feels like they’re on the outside a little bit better, then that’s great.”

Ed notes that it’s quite common for people interested in science fiction and fantasy to feel like that, and Art wonders if that will continue to be true in, say, twenty years, since it seems like nerd culture is so much stronger now, and so much more normal, than wen he was a kid. “You can find your tribe a lot faster.”

Art is playing with an idea for a sequel for Crimson, which he hadn’t expected. He’s also continuing on with his Amber Fang series, and just finished writing a shorter piece of fantasy, currently called Dragon Assassin.

Those interested in his ongoing experiments with self-publishing can follow along on his blog at arthurslade.com.

 

 

Episode 4: Julie Czerneda

An hour-long conversation with Julie Czerneda ( bestselling author of The Clan Chronicles books and many, many others) about her creative process, with a special focus on her upcoming fantasy The Gossamer Mage.

The Introduction:

Julie Czerneda was born in Exeter, Ontario, and grew up on air force bases, her family moving with each transfer, from Ontario to Prince Edward Island and finally to Nova Scotia. When her father became a civilian, the family moved to Ontario, settling in what was then a rural setting near the shores of Lake Ontario (and is now that not-so-rural setting known as Mississauga.

Julie studied biology at the Universities of Waterloo, Saskatchewan, and Queen’s, accompanied by her former chemistry partner (and now husband) Roger. They moved a few times before settling back in Ontario, where they still live.

Julie began her writing career in educational publishing, beginning when she was on maternity leave from a university teaching. She became a full-time author and editor of non-fiction educational materials, primarily in science, in 1985, contributing to more than 250 titles from elementary to college level. But she also had twenty-three unpublished and unfinished science fiction novels tucked away in file folders, and with encouragement from husband, she finished the one in file folder X, Beholder’s Eye, which was bought by DAW Books. That same year, Julie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and DAW contracted for three more novels.

She’s been published by DAW ever since: eighteen novels, including the popular nine-book The Clan Chronicles series. She’s also written many short stories, edited anthologies, and taught writing. Her books have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and best-selling status.

Website: czerneda.com

Twitter:  @JulieCzerneda

Julie Czerneda’s Amazon page

The Show:

She says her parents conspired to make her a writer. Her father brought home the first two Tarzan books, but only gave her the first one, which “doesn’t end well.” She came running out of her room, yelling, she was so furious, and “instead of explaining to me what a cliff-hanger was, my Mom lent me her typewriter and said, ‘Fix it.’” Julie proceeded to write a page that satisfied her much more than the book, and never stopped. She wrote so much as a child her parents bought her a file cabinet to hold it all.

We discussed whether moving from place to place as a child of a military family influenced her writing; Julie said only in that, when they left the Air force and moved into a civilian neighbourhood, all the other kids had gone off to summer cottages. That left her alone and exited to have time to write.

She encountered new science fiction for the first time in her university bookstore. “To be able to buy them myself was liberating.”

Julie studied biology. She feels her interest in science and her interest in science fiction arise from the same place. “It seemed like a lot things I read as a kid were finite. They just ended, or they were real life, and while real life is marvellous, I’d rather talk to real people about it. So, when I discovered things that were showing me something beyond what was here, it was the same itch being scratched that takes me into science.” She said she went into science because she wanted to explore how the world works, and read science fiction because she wanted new, interesting ways of thinking about the world.

She originally wanted a joint degree in physics and biology, so she could be the first person to go into place equipped to communicate with aliens (a plan she wrote out in third grade). However, the University of Waterloo wasn’t set up for that, so her courses conflicted.

Much of her early fiction writing was really biological thought experiments. Asked if being a scientist makes it difficult for her to write fantasy, she notes a good fantasy novel, because it takes her out of herself, so she doesn’t worry about the real-world impossibility of it. She was herself hesitant about writing fantasy for a long time because she felt the language was so rich, and the landscapes so intense, she couldn’t see herself doing it.

However, after DAW began publishing her, she was asked to write a fantasy story for an anthology being edited by Martin H. Greenberg. “You don’t say no, so I wrote my first fantasy.”

Still, the prospect of writing a fantasy novel terrified her. She finally did (A Turn of Light), but she says it took her five years to work up the courage to start, and two years (and deleting 400,000 words) to figure out how to do it.

She notes her popular Esen character, who has an ability associated with magic in fantasy, didn’t begin as a shapeshifter—she was the result of a thought experiment, trying to figure out what would be necessary for a biological organism to be semi-immortal. The Esen books continue to be her “biological playground,” Julie says. “I have a very large filing cabinet full of weird biology and all of it goes into those books. Most of the weird stuff is real.”

Her upcoming fantasy, The Gossamer Mage, grew out of a fantasy novella Eric Flint asked her to write. She was inspired by a pen in the Lee Valley catalogue, which included words for parts of a pen she’d never heard before. She did some more research, and realized she wanted to write a magic system based on pen and ink. She clipped the image from the catalogue, and that, in turn, gave her the main character, because the story opens with the pen in his hand after many years of use. (She also researched the history of ink, “which is full of great drama and crime and all manner of skullduggery. It’s amazing!”)

Julie says her research differs from science fiction to fantasy and gives some examples.

Whereas when she’s writing science fiction, Julie says, she tends to know enough about the question she wants to ask to get going and what she additionally needs to research. (For example, for something she won’t be writing for a couple of years, she’s currently researching plate tectonics.)

For fantasy, her research focuses mostly on the worldbuilding, “because everything past the worldbuilding is me, making it up.”

She likes to physically visit places: in A Turn of Light there are a lot of log cabins, so she spent a lot of time in cabins. She also went to a running mill, so she could feel how the building shakes and moves.

The amount of outlining Julie does depends on the book. She did little for A Turn of Light, wanting to see where it went. For the next two Esen books, she’s made a note of their shape and the major plot threads. The Gossamer Mage is quite different: it’s a series of novellas, each of which moves the story forward, but which can be read separately or in a different order. She’s outlining those more tightly. Usually she doesn’t outline a book until she’s almost finished, so she can go back and make sure she’s covered every point—more to check herself than to plot to.

She doesn’t have much problem with continuity while writing series, she says, but she does have to work to keep the voices consistent.

She likes to put as much as she can into a story so she can draw on it latter—such as the giant lobsteresque alien from A Thousand Words for Stranger who has a pool in his suite in which he has “carnivorous non-verbal wives.” The implication is they’re non-sentient, but Julie never intended for them to stay that way, and they became major players in the final finale trilogy. “I never knew if I would do that. I just put it in, because the more you put into a story, the richer it reads.”

Julie notes her editor (and mine), Sheila E. Gilbert, told her a long time ago that she likes to have the sense the world she’s reading about continues off the page—places the main characters haven’t been, unexplored areas, things that don’t get mentioned but you know that they exist.

Julie gives a bit of a synopsis of The Gossamer Mage, with its magicians spending their life with every act of magic, sometimes just to create beautiful things. “It’s very much a case of, if you want to keep magic, what are you willing to do? And is there a value to just random beauty, or not?” She adds, “I myself don’t know how it will end.”

The two main characters are the magic user from the original novella, “Intended Words,” now the first novella in the book, who is trying to destroy the deathless goddess because he’s seen so many of his friends turn old and die for nothing, and one of the daughters who serves the goddess, who, in the second novella, “Consequential Phrases,” shows what things look like from her side.

Sometimes minor characters threaten to take over a book. Julie remembers that in her second book in The Clan Chronicles, Ties of Power, the character of Simon, someone from the past of the main character who made him who he was, started to get too important. She told Sheila Gilbert she either needed to kill him off or she needed another book, and Sheila told her to go ahead and write another book, in which he got his “satisfying comeuppance.”

Julie does very little rewriting, possibly because she did so much non-fiction writing. “I write the best I can first time around.” After a spell-check, she sends it. Sheila comes back with requests for elaboration in certain areas, she writes that, and she’s done.

Part of that is the confidence and experience of having done this full-time for twenty years. What’s important to her is to make sure she has been “generous enough to the reader” in terms of worldbuilding, scene, and description. She’s also come to realize that any book “can only be so good.”

“I could pick up any book off the shelf that I’ve written and I’m sure I’ll find things I’d like to fix, or have someone read it to me and think, oh, that’s awkward, but if I’ve told the story I want, and at the end of it the person feels the way I meant them to feel, I still love the book, and I’m fine with that.”

Sheila Gilbert, she says, is “the ultimate beta reader,” who brings her own enormous amount of experience to the book. “For me she’s the one who’s forever slapping me on the wrist in a very calm and thoughtful way when I’ve been lazy, when I’ve left something out, when I’ve tried to skip over some important revelation…I think she’s got a wonderful instinct for the emotional content, and she’s got a great instinct for crap.”

We talked a bit about the goofs we sometimes make as writers. Julie recounts how at one point she began to confuse aft and bow on ships and would have characters go from the aft to the stern—which, of course, are the same thing. No one picked that up for years—it’s in all The Clan Chronicles books. “Everyone had missed this, and we’re talking about twenty years of proofreading. Even readers have never called me on this.”

Julie says her fiction has an optimistic bent because she doesn’t like dark, grim fiction, nor does she believe in it. “I love a really good tragedy…what I don’t like is violence used as pornography and I don’t like the victim mentality…in my experience and the way I look at the word, most people muddle along. We’re not great heroes, but we’re not great villains, either.”

She also doesn’t write grim fiction because she doesn’t want to inhabit a world like that for the long period of time it takes to write a book. “I get too engrossed in the work, and I don’t want to be there. That’s not how I want to make my living.”

The difference between writing mainstream fiction and speculative fiction, Julie says, is that when you’re writing every day, slice-of-life stories, you’re relying on your reader already being an expert on that world, which allows you to use very broad brushstrokes for most of it, only focusing in on the places you choose as your settings.

Some of that happens even in science fiction: experienced SF readers already have a mental image of a spaceship, for example, so you don’t have to describe it in detail. “I’m not shaping the world so much as pointing my flashlight at a part of it where I want their attention, as if they’re all cats and I’ve got a little pointer.” Fantasy, Julie says, requires more detailed, specific description of many of the elements of the world.

Julie thinks science fiction and fantasy writers are partly driven by dissatisfaction: “You’re not getting what you want as a reader, so you’re going to write it yourself.”

But, she adds, “I also think there are so many questions we want to answer as human beings that science fiction lets us play with, and so many things we want to say that we care deeply about that fantasy gives us a platform to say. To me, those are both very powerful draws to writing science fiction and fantasy. And I think I will always write both for that reason.”

She doesn’t write with a message in mind, except, perhaps, for, “Take care of the planet, take care of yourselves, be nice to other people.”