Episode 77: K. M. Rice

An hour-long conversation with K.M. Rice, national award-winning screenwriter and independent author whose four-part Afterworld series launched with Ophelia and continues with book two, Priestess.

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The Introduction

K.M. Rice, or Kellie, is a national award-winning screenwriter and independent author. Her four-part Afterworld series launched with the first book, Ophelia, and continues with book two, Priestess.

Her first novel, Darkling, is a young adult dark fantasy that now has a companion novel titled The WatcherHer novella The Wild Frontier is an ode to the American spirit of adventure and seeks to awaken the wildish nature in all of us. Black Irish, a dark comedy, highlights contemporary political drama in the emerald isle.

Over the years, her love of storytelling has led to producing and geeking out in various webshows and short films, including her author vlog and a webseries called Happy Hobbit, along with working for both Magic Leap and Weta Workshop. She provided additional writing and research for Middle-earth From Script to Screen: Building the World of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. 

When not writing or filming, she can be found hiking in the woods, baking, running, and enjoying the company of the many animals on her family ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kellie, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now, I laughed a little bit there because I might as well explain that this is our second take on this interview. We’ve had quite a challenge making this happen.

Something in the universe was kind of conspiring that, like, for some reason, it was meant to not happen until now.

Exactly. The first time we tried, I had a windstorm, a huge windstorm up here in Regina, Saskatchewan–the whole province, it wasn’t just the city–that took out power for hours and hours and hours. And then we rescheduled for the following week, at which point you had a windstorm that took out power. And then, when we finally made it happen the first time, the Internet just would drop us periodically throughout the hour. And during that time, I managed to lose chunks of the interview. So here we are again. And this time, it’s going to be perfect.

Well, my clan’s motto is “fortitude.”

Seems appropriate! So, we’ll just pretend we haven’t talked to each other before. So, we’ll start by going back into the mists of time, as I like to say, and talk about where you grew up and how you got interested in fantasy and science fiction and all that stuff and how you got interested in writing. How did that all come about for you?

I was one of those kids who was really lucky that I had parents who regularly read to me. Our bedtime routine was, I don’t know, like, three books or something like that, like, me and my older brother could go pick three books and have our parents read them to us. It was either my mom or my dad, and then two more siblings came along, and we would join in being read to with them, too. And also, it was just a normal day in school and stuff. I remember being read to all the time, and that just, it was so magical to me, the magic of books. And I was an eighties kid, so I remember Reading Rainbow and everything. Everything in our culture at the time was just kind of telling me, like, this is the magical thing to do, is to read stories and maybe one day write one.

So, I was actually in kindergarten when I wrote my first story. And I think it coincided that way because that was the very first time I ever learned how to write, and as soon as I could, I just I wrote, ironically, a story about a haunted house on Halloween, which . . . I say ironically because there’s a haunted house in Darkling as well, which was my debut novel. And yeah, I wrote and illustrated my very first book, the spelling’s very phonetic, but I can still read it to this day and figure out what it’s supposed to be. And I brought it into class for show and tell, and I just wanted to read it to everyone. I think I did it, then my teacher at the time told me, you know, “I’d like you to take this to the principal.” And I had no context. And I just thought that going to the principal means you’ve done something wrong.

Sent to the principal’s office.

Yeah. And I’d gotten in trouble before for, like, making fart jokes and stuff like that. And I genuinely had no understanding of why that was inappropriate. But I knew the teacher wanted me to say I did, like, “Oh yes, sorry, I shouldn’t do that,” but I’m like, “Why?” So I was like, “Oh great. I probably messed up something again.” And I just remember the long walk to the principal’s office, and she sat me down, and she smiled at me, and she said, “Well, I hear you’ve written a story. Can you read it to me?” And I read her the story, and afterwards, she said, “You know, this is a fantastic story. Can I give you a sticker?” And she wrote me this note in her beautiful cursive handwriting that I still have, because I still have that copy, about what an excellent story it was. And she put a sticker on it. And I was like, what? You can go to the principal for good things, too. This is amazing.

I remember going to the principal’s office once. I don’t remember what it was for. And I remember that same sensation of, “I have to go to the principal’s office,” and I remember sitting in a hard chair outside his office, and that’s all I remember. So, whatever it was that they were trying to ingrain in me for the future, all that they ingrained in me was that it was scary to go to the principal’s office. I don’t know what it was for at all. I don’t think it was for writing a story, though. So, that’s a very early start to writing. Did you then carry on in that vein as you grew up through elementary school and junior high and high school?

I did. Fortunately, my spelling improved. I remember in fourth grade there were, Gosh, I guess it was just a general assignment. Every two weeks, we had a story writing contest, and I would routinely win them all. I don’t mind bragging that I got cookies as a reward. My teacher would give us, like, a vanilla-sandwich cookie if you won. So then, all the other kids wanted to be my, quote, writing partner. And I was like, “I work alone, people, “ but I did, some of my friends, I let them do the story with me, but I was very disappointed that it always turned out to be, “So what are we . . . what’s the story about, Kelly?” And then I would be like, “OK, and what do you think?” “I don’t know. Just keep going. You just tell me.” And I’m like, “Other people can’t do this. Like, come on, just try to.” Because I was so lucky, too, to have been raised in a rural area where, like, my first real word other than mom and dad or mama and dada, was outside. And when you’re in that kind of environment, when you want to play a game, you’re in your head, you’re growing your imagination all the time. I had siblings that I could play with when my older brother was nice to me and wanted to play with me. I did have a couple of years alone while my younger siblings were still too small to do much of anything. And I had my friends, but even with my friends, I found that I was usually the one coming up with all the stories.

So, I think, you know, maybe it’s something innate, but also the environment I grew up in was just really conducive to learning how to push the boundaries of your own mind and expand your imagination, so that by the time I did get into junior high, high school, etc., it was already a relatively rich and fertile area of my life. And I had no problem whatsoever coming up with ideas and coming up with stories and just loved doing anything creative. That transferred then into video making or filmmaking when I was twelve, and I was given our old camera because my family got an upgrade. I wasn’t given it. I was just told I could use it. So, that was, that opened up a whole ’nother world. I’ve got hours and hours of videos of me coaching my younger siblings into being police detectives and Indiana Jones, like, for our little movies.

I, unfortunately, go back to the days before video cameras. And it was, if you’re going to have anything, it was, like, eight-millimeter film cameras, and very few of those. So, yeah, it was unusual for any of my friends to be doing anything in the film area.

I’m so jealous of kids these days who have video cameras in their pockets.

Yeah, I know. 4K video cameras.

Yeah, it’s a different era, for sure.

So, through all of that, you were writing, but were you gravitating towards the fantastical side of things, or were you more eclectic at the time? And when did you start to really kind of focus on the fantasy side of writing things?

I actually haven’t given that much thought before, but you’re right, I think I did start off in that vein. I started off writing about a haunted house, and then the stories I was writing in elementary school were about pig assassins or unicorns and. . . kind of like the bio that you just read about me, there’s a touch of whimsy, there’s a touch of the otherworldly in most everything that I write. The only time that I don’t bring that into play, like, for example, in Black Irish, is because there’s comedy there. But I do find that I entertain myself better as I’m writing if I have something to . . .a lens to look at the world through that . . . usually it’s just more interesting to me, it’s more engaging to my imagination, if it’s something that goes beyond just the here and now. And if it’s not something fantastical, then it will be . . . for example, The Wild Frontier, my challenge there was to have more lyrical prose and have the magic kind of come from the words and the way the words sound, how they feel on your tongue rather than any sort of external, fantastical presence.

But I do remember loving The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was a little young for Lord of the Rings when I first started reading that stuff, but I eventually got round to it after having a lot of people recommend it to me. And also, Harry Potter. Like, I was not a child child . . .well, actually, I was a child when the Harry Potter books first came out, but by the time they got really popular, I think I was in high school, and I had a lot of fun reading those, so . . . I think I was always gravitating toward the escapism and the way that fantasy provides us a safe space to look at real-life drama and trauma because it’s not set in the real world, I don’t have to necessarily . . .I can imagine . . . when you read that type of book, you can imagine what you want to imagine and you can block out stuff that you . . . that maybe is too dark for you. But I do think that even as adults, fantasy gives us a safe place to look at. If that makes sense. 

Mm-hmm.

So, I think I was even gravitating to that as a kid.

So, as you go along and then . . . you mentioned you were introduced to video, you kind of went more in the video direction to begin with, didn’t you? When you got to . . . like, did you study writing or did you study filmmaking, or what did you study as you decided to go forward into your life?

When I was a college freshman, I entered into university thinking I was going to be a film director. And that fell apart pretty quickly because I realized that as a director, you are still working with someone else’s vision unless you’ve also written the material

And you have to work with actors, too.

Yes! You have to be a big people person, which is . . . not that I’m not a people person, but I was like, “That sounds like a lot of stress, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy that goes along with it.” And it jus, t it kind of lost its gossamer appeal to me. And I realized, the storyteller, that’s what was speaking to me all along. So I did start . . . well, actually, I went through the normal college, the “now what do I do?” experience, and I was fortunate to have a professor who was actually teaching me a kind of an archaeology hybrid class when I was a freshman about deciphering whether The Trojan War ever actually really took place. So, it was kind of exploring the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age while teaching us research skills and stuff like that. It was one of those introductory courses. And she took the time . . . one day . . . she had bad arthritis and sometimes students would help carry her stuff to her office. And so, I was always happy to do that because I enjoyed talking with her. And I remember one time I was carrying her books and stuff back to her office with her, and she said, “You know, you’re a really good writer. Do you know that?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know. I mean, I love it.” She goes,” I wonder if you should be an English major.”

And at the time, I was like, “That is so boring and mundane. I want to be doing something amazing.” But I do remember going home and looking in the course catalog and reading up on the courses that you were, the core classes that you needed to take on, and I’m like, “All of those actually sound really interesting and fun. So maybe I should do this,” because it’s a degree that’s broad enough you could then build on it and go on to . . . a lot of people just assume you’re going to teach, but there’s a lot more you could do with it as well. And a strong foundation in writing, especially in today’s world where so much is digital and so much communication is via email. I think it’s an important skill to have. So, I was really thankful for that conversation and that she pushed me in that direction because before that, writing was just something that was a part of me that was fun, like, writing was kind of confined to the realm of fan fiction and not really something that I was taking super seriously as a craft.

So, when you switched to become an English major, there must have been some actual writing classes. I always ask this because I’ve talked to writers, especially in the science fiction/fantasy field, who say, “Well, I took some form of creative writing, but it didn’t help me very much because they were so against the kind of writing that I wanted to do on the fantastical side. What was your experience?

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, no, I really don’t like essay writing or anything like that, but of course, I had to learn to do it, suck it up and do it as an English major. But we didn’t have a creative writing major at my university at the time. They do now. So, I was doing a creative writing minor, and I took an intro to creative writing course that was actually . . . I found it a nurturing place. It was taught by a student teacher, and maybe that made a difference, but I felt like I was stretching my wings a little bit. And then I took one more fiction course, and that professor, I thought of him as Professor Snape from Harry Potter because he was very crotchety. He could be vicious, like, he could be really mean. I remember him reading a sentence from someone’s story and going, “That’s dumb. That’s just a dumb sentence. Why would you write something so stupid?” I’m like, “How is this helpful? Like, we’re all beginning writers?”

So, I was so nervous to have my first short story read by him. And instead, he read a sentence from my short story and said, “Look, this story has its flaws, but someone who can write a sentence like that is a good writer.” So that gave me a lot of encouragement. And so, I did then apply to be part of the graduate creative writing program to get my master’s in fine arts, which I was told was highly competitive. But I got in for fiction and screenwriting. In fact, I think fiction was my main emphasis, and screenwriting was my secondary because I was also learning screenwriting at the time as an undergrad. And I found that it came extraordinarily easy and natural to me. So, I was kind of growing in the two areas at the same time. And by the time I was in graduate studies, that’s when I was starting to get bored writing anything that was ostensibly literature because I was kind of writing in the here and now, and that’s fine, I don’t have anything against that. But I was finding that my imagination was just yearning to tell these other types of stories, and to world build, and to create some fantastical elements and set rules and limitations to them and then explore our humanity within those bounds.

So, I started writing those stories, and then, yeah, the same thing happened. In fact, as a matter of fact, the first story I wrote, it’s called “The Walkers in Darkness,” which is available online for free for anyone to read if they want to. That was actually written out of my love of the Anglo-Saxon language, Old English, which I also studied when I was translating Beowulf, and there is a fantastical element to it because there’s a creature in the woods that attacks this family, this Scandinavian family, and you don’t quite know what it is, in my mind, it was like a Sasquatch or something, but it’s kind of like this Grendellesque creature. And other than that, there is no magic, nothing. It’s all just written in the world that you see through the lens of the Beowulf author, and I even went to the length of trying to exclude words with Latin roots to try to really build that old English vibe.

That would be a challenge. 

It was a welcome one, though. And I was just shocked that most of the feedback I got from my classmates was, “I don’t read sword and sorcery, so I can’t really review this for you.” And I’m like, “OK, they have swords. What’s . . . what are they talking about?” And I was really let down until my professor, bless him, wrote an expletive on the back story for his review. “Bleep, yeah!”  And I remember he said, “There’s no postmodern pussyfooting around here. This is just pure story.” And I think to him it had been such a relief to read something different because everyone was so desperate to write what they called the next great American novel, which I still to this day have no idea what that supposed to mean. But I’m like, “If I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean, I’m not going to try to write it. I’m just going to write what I enjoy.” And at the time, there was this whole like . . .  you know, people talk about J.K. Rowling in a negative way now for a completely different reason, but they were pooh-poohing her and Harry Potter just because it was wildly successful and it was, quote, genre. And I’m like, “Hi, I like money and I would like for my stuff to be read. Is this bad?? Am I not supposed to be like, ‘Yes, I want to write to tell stories and because I have this innate drive to do so and I’d be doing it anyway. But also, like, if I made money from it, that would be amazing, too. Like, is it wrong to have that as a whole?”

It’s even better than cookies

Yeah, exactly.

You were professional very early, what with the cookie thing going on, but that is even better. So how did you start writing for money?

In fact, it goes back to that Professor Snape I had. I, around that era, I had written a short story written kind of in the Edgar Allan Poe-esque genre. And it’s called “The Woe of William.” And I submitted it to a contest at our university, and I won, like, five hundred dollars or something, because my story won, and I later found out that not only did I win, but I was . . . at the time they were not separating undergrad from graduate students, so I was competing against other people in the creative writing program that I wasn’t yet a part of. So, that really put some wind in my sails, especially getting the money. I’m like, whoa, you know, at the time I was like, “Five hundred dollars. This is . . . I’m rich.” And that was a story I wrote one night in my hammock as it was getting dark out, and I wrote until my hand was so numb I couldn’t write anymore. So I came in the house and I knelt on my bed and I finished scribbling it out and it had very little editing because it was just this burst of inspiration. And I’m like, “If that fun thing I’m doing can get me somewhere, that’s really cool.”

So, that gave me the encouragement I really needed and then I had a lot . . . I had more success with my short stories in competitions such as that, but most of my financial success was coming with my screenwriting, because I was winning national screenwriting competitions with my screenplays. And I do always highly recommend that fiction writers and even probably nonfiction writers do study some screenwriting or playwriting because it really helps you hone your storytelling skills, since you’re only allowed to use actions and dialogue.

That was actually the next question, was how screenwriting has fed into your fiction and vice versa, I guess.

Yeah, I think it’s a wonderful back and forth. You’re forced to focus on the spine of the story. And without that, it’s really easy to get lost. because there was a lot of people who I was in grad school with who I would read their work and be like, “Mman, this person can really paint a scene. They are really . . .  I can fully imagine this, but I just read 30 pages and I could tell you what happened in two sentences.” So, I’m like, nothing’s really happening yet in this story. And a lot should have happened by 30 pages in. So, that’s the kind of situation, one, like, that type of person or type of writer would really benefit from trying their hand at some screenwriting and forcing themselves to get down to the bare bones of storytelling.

Yeah, I recently read something where I literally got to the end of what was supposed to be the end of the book . . . it was in manuscript format, I was evaluating it . . . and I literally went up to my office to look for the rest of the book because I couldn’t believe that that was the end because nothing had happened yet.

Oh, my gosh. And I’m not really entertained by those types of stories. I know that there’s a place and time for it. I remember one of my professors pointing out to someone who was writing a historical fiction piece, he said, “I really appreciate that you’re not in a rush to tell this story that we know we’re in your hands and we’re going to go about this at a slow pace.” And I’m like, “Well, I hadn’t seen that as a plus,” but he made it, he helped me relook at it as a plus. So, it just, it’s all so subjective. It’s just, why are you reading? That’s why it is really important to figure out your target audience because if you are writing to a certain type of reader, it informs almost every decision you make when you’re telling the story.

Another thing I wanted to ask about screenwriting, I find . . . I’m more familiar on the playwriting side. I’ve written and directed plays, and I’m an actor as well, a stage actor. And I have often felt that the writing for the stage and being a director as well specifically helps with keeping a clear image in my head of what’s going on in a scene, where people are in relationship to each other, what the surroundings are, how that impacts. Because, of course, when you’re directing a play, you have very three-dimensional people who, you know, can run into each other and stuff like that. You have to know where they are, and you have to build those screen pictures, those stage pictures on them. And I feel that has helped me writing action scenes, or any scenes where there are a number of people in the space. Do you think that screenwriting gives you some of that same sort of visual component to your prose writing?

Yeah, yeah, because if you don’t have an imagination that naturally is going to envision it as a film, screenwriting is obviously going to help you get to that place where you can see it play, Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the RingsKing Kong, and a bunch of other films, one of the things he says is, “Make sure you can watch the movie in your head from beginning to end, because if you can’t, how can you expect anyone else to?“ So, I think that’s good advice. And I also got really good advice in my Intro to Creative Writing Class a million years ago, the one that I said actually felt quite nurturing, where he advised us to, “If you’re writing about a physical space, always draw the space, because you will find your imagination is putting in rabbit holes that are not physically possible.” And I remember thinking, “That’s stupid advice, I know exactly what the house I’m writing about looks like. And I drew it, and I was like, “Oh. Oh, the staircase has two different landings that it’s impossible for it to have. OK, this is good advice.”

Yeah, especially if, you know, like, I was writing something, and it was set in an inn, which I had just sort of imagined in my head. And then, when I started drawing it, I realized that it just didn’t work, what I had been writing about, as a physical space. Yeah, I’ve encountered exactly that thing. Well, let’s move on to talk about your most current series, the Afterworld series, as a focus on how you go about creating your stories. So, we’ll begin at the very beginning. It’s a cliche, but it’s still a legitimate question . . . actually, et’s begin even a little bit before the beginning and have you give a synopsis, whatever you’d like to say about these books, before we start talking about them.

I will . . . I am, like, my own worst enemy. I’m, like, bad at the elevator pitch, which is something I really need to work on. But, so, I will read to you my little summary from my website. So, the series is called Afterworld, the first book is called Ophelia, and it’s available in ebook format for free right now, if you’re interested at all.

“The four-book Afterworld series tells the tale of a love so strong that it cannot be constrained by death… or time. Compared by readers to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, this unique epic combines ancient Irish mythology and history with the modern world.”

So, I will read you the summary of Ophelia as well. And my boyfriend’s Irish, so he’ll tear me apart for this, but I’m going to attempt an Irish accent for a moment here.

If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have attempted one earlier.

“‘What if it wasn’t random?” he whispered, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose one by one with tickling tugs. “What if sometimes people are meant to meet each other?” 

“Ophelia Brighton hasn’t had a vision from the past since she was a small child. Now a grad student, both her thesis and her life are interrupted when a troubled young Irishman knocks on her door in Santa Cruz, California. Her visions return with his arrival, and Ophelia must struggle to keep her balance amidst her growing confusion over her place in the world . . .and time. 

“When Ophelia’s visions of a Victorian mystery reveal a secret that will change her future, she also discovers a love that was stronger than death. But is it too late to right the wrongs of the past?”

So that’s the description of book one.

I just . . . this is completely off topic in a way, but just thinking of Irish accents, I mentioned that I’m an actor, and years ago, I was in a professional production of a play, Who Has Seen the Wind, which is based on a famous Canadian novel set on the prairies, and the character I was playing . . . well, I was playing two characters. But one of the characters was Uncle Sean, who was Irish. So, I was doing my best Irish accent. But the director was very, very Hungarian.

Oh my gosh.

Thick Hungarian accent. He was no help at all on the accent. So, he just let me do whatever I wanted. And my one thing was what I got, you know, after I’d done it. And somebody that knew said I sounded Irish. I just didn’t sound like I came from the part of Ireland the character said he came from. And I figured as long as I hit the island, I was doing OK.

I know, right? At some point, you’ve just got to pick your battles. Yeah, I love it when my boyfriend does an American accent, and he’s suddenly, like, this Southerner, I’m like, “That’s what we sound like to you?”

Funny thing is, I went to the UK when I was in college, and I went to college in the States. We were on a chorus tour, and I had all these Southerners around me, and in England, people thought they were Irish. So maybe there is a connection there.

Oh, funny. You know, like, the American accent has, especially in different regions, been formed by the Irish vowel pronunciation because obviously, they were a massive, in Canada as well, they were a massive immigrant group. So linguistically, I definitely think they influenced our accents.

Undoubtedly. That was just an aside. And so, we’re using this as an example, where do your ideas come from? The seeds from which your stories grow, and specifically this one?

Well, let me think now. So, this was actually the . . . I want to say fourth novel that I wrote, even though it wasn’t the fourth that I published, because the first book that I wrote is unpublished, and I wrote two of those. I’m waiting until I finish the series before release that. And that was inspired by a dream. So, it had what was the end of a story as a dream, and I wrote to discover how the characters got to that place. And then the second one, Darkling, was also inspired by dreams that most people would call nightmares. And just the emotions of the dream clung to me like carrion on a skeleton, which I feel is an appropriate metaphor for that book. And I just really wanted to explore that. So, both those novels I wrote very quickly because I don’t outline, I write to entertain myself, so that’s why I write in kind of these manic bursts. And I have since tested that and been relieved to find out that I can also write as a more sane individual, you know, in chunks of time when I have them. And from the feedback I’ve received so far, my work hasn’t suffered for it. So that was a great relief to me because, like I said, the first several novels that I wrote, including Ophelia, I wrote in this kind of just-lock-myself-in-my-room and tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

But, so, Ophelia did not come from a dream. In fact, it came from a very roundabout place that . . . this description, explanation, is going to have nothing to do with what you just heard of the summary of the book. But I always had this fascination with the First World War and with Irish history in general, the Irish struggle for freedom, especially as an American, that really captures the imagination. So, I love this blend of history and the fantastical, especially if it’s almost magical realism, if it’s like, well, just one there’s one twist, play with that one twist. For example, in Outlander, it’s time travel. So, how does that change things? How does that change your view of the world? And obviously, there’s some playing with time in my novels as well. And this idea of someone could have been a young man in Ireland and enlisted to go fight for the Crown–at the time, they were being told by a lot of politicians that serving the British in the First World War would be a great way to get home rule–because they were still considered a colony of the UK–it would be a great way to get home rule because it will show we’re willing to play by the rules, we’re willing to be your allies. So, a lot of young men enlisted under that belief, and the tide completely changed culturally at home over the course of those four or five years. They had the 1916 Easter rising, which was a strike at freedom and a strike that the organizers knew was pretty much doomed to fail. But they hoped that through their failure, the Irish people would be galvanized.

And that is what happened. The British sailed warships up the River Liffey and decimated a lot of Dublin in retaliation and trying to quell the rebellion. And a lot of civilians died. So, people at first were very upset at these rabble-rousers being like, “Why did you do this to us? Why did you incur their wrath? We’re just trying to go about our daily lives.” But then once word got out about how the uprisers were being treated in prison, and once they started being executed, two weeks later, which was apparently enough time for these emotions to come down . . . you know, they could hear the gunshots. Dublin isn’t that huge of a city, at least the old part of Dublin. And people just turned very much against the British occupation in terms of popular opinion. So, at the time when these veterans returned home, they were seen as people who’d betrayed the Irish because they went to serve the Crown, even though a lot of them, their motivation was the opposite. And so, that was tough. But then, on top of that, they returned home to a lot of political unrest where, as I mentioned, the cultural tide was wanting to push for freedom. So, they were in a really unique position to be young men with a lot of military training. And that’s largely how the Irish were able to organize and conduct their guerrilla tactics and win their independence from the United Kingdom in 1921, I believe it was, when the treaty was signed. Of course, Northern Ireland wasn’t part of that treaty, but the Republic of Ireland was essentially birthed then. Well, I guess that was one hundred years ago now.

Yeah.

So, I was fascinated that one person’s lifetime could go through all that, and that’s actually just, Like, a decade. How I came up with this really roundabout way to tell that story, that baffles even me. But I don’t question it so much because especially this series of books, I almost feel like . . . you know, the ancient Greeks talk about their muses whispering in their ears. I feel like someone’s been whispering this story in my ear and that these people are real people, and I’m just their conduit. So, by the time I got to the fourth book, I was nervous because I was like, “How do I close out a four-book series that’s on this epic scale?” And the book’s not released yet. But I do feel like personally I did the story and the characters justice, and that essentially wrote itself at that point. So that, to me, was a very magical experience, to be kind of channeling, whether it’s my subconscious or . . . I don’t know if there really are muses or whatever it is, I was able to put it to paper.

So, my next question is always about planning and outlining. It sounds to me like perhaps you’re not a huge planner or outliner?

No, not at all. I found that when I do that, which I needed to do for some of my screenplays and stuff, I then would really fight against the actual writing because part of me felt like I’d already satiated that need to tell the story and that the story was already told. So that was I realized that was kind of a passion killer for me. But I do take notes as I write, especially something as complicated as Ophelia or any of the Afterworld books, I have to keep notes to be like, “OK, remember that this was said. Remember that this is that date.” So, I have a notebook that I keep next to me. But other than that, I do . . .  also enjoy editing as I go. So, if I wake up the next morning and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, wait a minute, what you just wrote yesterday, that’s going to contradict something in chapter two,” I’m more comfortable going in my Word document and editing that and changing it before I continue going forward. So, it’s all kind of always in flux.

Well, one of the interesting things about this podcast, of course, is that every writer does it differently.

Yeah.

So on the outlining front, I have the people who, you know, just start writing. And then there’s . . . I always mention Peter V. Brett, who writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing.

That’s just so impressive to me.

And I said, “Well, you know, doesn’t that kind of take some of the fun out of it?”, I guess, or words to that effect, and he basically said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be fun. It’s a job.” I mean, I’m . . . I kind of do a few pages of sketches, and then I rarely look at it when I write the book.

So, I mean, there’s strength to both styles. I think that that’s what I love about it. And that’s what I try. . .  like, when I was doing my author’s vlog, which I don’t do writing advice so much anymore, but there’s like fifty or more episodes out there giving free writing advice, answering people’s questions, and one of the things I was always trying to emphasize is like, I’m telling you what works for me, by no means should you apply that to your life or compare yourself to that. The fact that I wrote a 90,000-word novel in two and a half weeks does not mean that I’m better or . . . it could be a crap book. And that doesn’t mean that you should be holding yourself to that. I’m just saying that this has been my experience, and almost every creative has a different way of going about it, different circumstances, different ways that their mind works. And it’s just about experimenting and finding out what works for you and encouraging that, leaning into that.

So, I always tell people, be very cautious when you’re reading these writing advice blogs or books, and they’re telling you this is what you should do. Think, “Well, no, that’s what they do and what works for them.” And you can try it and see if it works for you. But if it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to try something else.

You mentioned your writing process earlier, where you had done it in these intense bursts, and then you did it a little more sanely.

Yes.

So, we kind of talked about that. And then you also talked a little bit about you do some revision as you go. But what does your revision process look like when you have a draft?

I usually have to let it sit for at least a month. I have to have that emotional and intellectual distance from it before I can go back to it. And then I’ll go back to it, and I’ll reread it. Now, I hope my answer right now is truthful, I might . . . I’m not so self-aware when I’m going through this process. I know that once I finish it, I probably don’t completely leave it and walk away. I probably first go through and read it again because what I tend to do because I write quickly is I do the broad strokes of scenes. So, I have a lot of, what do you call them, like, not filler moments but placeholders, sometimes dialogue, placeholder descriptions of the characters, facial expressions, reactions, and stuff, and because when I’m first writing the scene, especially a charged scene, it is a lot of acting and I’m feeling those emotions, and I’m just trying to get those out. And then, I need to come through and add some of the finer details to the painting or the story. And that’s when I really start getting into the nitty-gritty. And then, inevitably, I have to start challenging myself. I found there’s a couple of pieces of software out there now that I’ve found really helpful in my writing that will flag overuse of words or expressions or passive voice. And that’s been really helpful to me because I do . . .we get brain blind to our own mistakes and our own patterns. So, it’s really nice to have that pointed out to me.

Would you like to introduce those software items?

The one I’m using right now is called ProWritingAid. And I think there’s a free version you can use where you upload, or you copy and paste onto their website, but I paid for it to be incorporated into my Microsoft Word. It does bog down the process a lot because it’s it makes it freeze every once in a while, which has been . . .

I use one called PerfectIt. The longer the manuscript gets, the more painful the process is so slow. So, probably the key there is to do it in short chunks at a time instead of trying to do the whole manuscript at once.

Exactly. And then also remind yourself that this is AI, and you don’t need to be writing to get a completely 100 percent score. But that always bothers me as I watch the . . . it gives you, like, a percentage of, like, how strong it thinks your writing is. And at some point, I was getting competitive with myself and, like, I intentionally have passive voice in the sentence. It’s OK.

Sentence fragments can be used.

Yeah, this is creative writing.

So, once you’ve got a revision, the revised draft, do you use beta readers of any sort?

I do.

What’s the next step, editing and all of that kind of thing? Since you’re independently published, do you hire an editor, or how does that work for you?

Most of my edits have been done by volunteers who are in the wide swath of my beta-reader group. I am lucky that I have a few friends who are also writers and really good editors. In fact, one of my friends isn’t a writer, but she’s a voracious reader, and so she will catch stuff.

That’s more useful than another writer, sometimes, I think. Somebody who’s a really experienced reader looks at it in a different way than another writer does.

And it’s amazing. Her wealth of knowledge amazes me because I know she’s just absorbed it all from reading so much. You know, it’s like, she’s memorized stylistic traits and rules and stuff just through absorption. And like, that is one of the reasons why you hear a lot of other writers saying if you want to improve your writing, read and read and reread.

I always start there, telling people if they want to be a writer, they have to read.

Yeah.

So, where do you find your beta readers?

I have a Facebook group I had called my Wildling Warriors because Wildlings is kind of the nickname I came up with for my supporters because my goal is for my creative work to awaken the wild, wildish nature in everyone. Awaken your passion, awaken your zest for life, for creativity, for nature, that’s kind of what I feel like drives me. So, through my films and through the written word and my photography, that’s usually where I’m coming from, and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support from people. Some of that came from having a successful YouTube series, The Happy Hobbit, which you mentioned, which is bringing Middle Earth into your daily life, which I do with, I co-produced with my sister. And it’s so much fun. But a lot of people found out who I was through there, then were like, “Oh, she also has a book!” and then made the hop over to my author self under my initials, and have just been incredibly supportive. I also have a group of friends who have been really supportive too. And the friends, it’s harder, because I can’t necessarily rely on them to give me brutal feedback, if brutal feedback is to be had. But it’s been good so far to get the opinions of at least ten different people on a novel, and I’ve been happy that thus far, no major plot holes or anything like that have been found because I do, before I even send it to them, I’m trying to send them as finished a book as possible so that there’s minimal work to go into it afterward.

And at some point, you have to decide that it’s ready to go. How do you decide that it’s ready to go?

You kind of have to get to the phase of good enough. Like, I still want to go back through Ophelia and look for more tweaks. That because you’re always growing as a writer, and you’re always learning more. And so, yeah, with it being an ebook, it’s very dangerous because you can . . .

You can always change it, yeah.

Yeah. You can change a lot and then just re-upload the document. I forgot to mention another part of the process, which I think is important. And a lot of people don’t do it because they either don’t have someone or they feel crazy doing it. But my little sister is my biggest fan. She loves all of my books, and she will always be my first listener. I won’t say reader because I’m reading it aloud to her. And the process of reading it aloud is really, really helpful to me, not only for the way . . . like, I will read dialogue, but I’m like, “How did I think that sounded OK?” Or I realize, “Oh, there’s no conjunction in that sentence.” But when I was reading it quickly on my own, my brain filled that in. So, I think that reading it aloud is a very powerful editing tool. And then I’m just extra lucky to have a loving little sister who, when I was writing the Afterworld series, for example, would just, “That’s it? That’s all you have written? I’m leaving. You go back in there, and you write more. I want more by tonight.” So that was a great motivator to know that there was someone out there who wanted this, even if it was just my sister. Like, not just, she’s not just, but even if it was just one person reading, reading out loud.

You know, you don’t have to have somebody to listen either. It’s the actual act of reading aloud. I tend to read it with, you know, moving my lips, basically, but still saying it out loud. Even if I’m working in a coffee shop or something, I’ll read it out loud, sort of under my breath sometimes when I’m in the editing process, because, yeah, if you don’t, it’s one of the best ways to find . . . and if you don’t find it then, you’ll find it when you’re doing a public reading and you see what you’re about to read and you think, “Oh, I wish I . . . and sometimes I have changed things in public . . .

And you go beet-red, and you’re like, “It’s OK, nobody else can see what you’re seeing . . . .”

Yeah, nobody else is reading along with you in the book, so it’s OK. Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so . . . we’ve got touched on some of this earlier on, but I do have the three “big philosophical questions.” I’m going to put reverb on that someday. They are simply, why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, you know, the sort of the big picture, why do humans write stories, and why stories with fantastical elements specifically? So there are your three big philosophical questions.

I was . . . I’m one of those personalities who, you know, the background I’ve given you in this episode shows that it just came innately to me. It was something that I was absorbing my whole childhood and couldn’t wait to do. So, I know that . . . I am writing without an audience. I have a journal full of poetry and starts of stories and, in fact, chunks of books that have still never even been read by anyone else or seen. And I’m going to keep doing that. So, I’m not writing for the sake of . . . I’m writing to express myself, I guess, and to put these things out into the world and to explore my own psyche and imagination, and then, if I can craft a powerful story that people are going to want to read and, even better, if people are willing to pay four dollars for, then, oh, you know,  all the better. But other than that, it is just this kind of innate drive I have to tell stories either through the written word or through filmmaking or photography, and I think that speaks to the nature of why we tell stories to begin with., I think that that separates us . . . I view human beings as animals just as much as any other creature on the planet, and I think that that’s one of the great things that separates us, though, is art. 

And I kind of reject the idea that our creativity and our artistic expression is just an over-firing of the creativity we’ve developed to problem solve, to survive as a species. I think there’s something more soulful to it than that. Whatever your spirituality is, I think that powerful art, powerful stories, connect to us on a level, a cathartic level where we feel like we’ve just vicariously experienced something. And it really broadens the scope of your way of thinking when you have had that escape from yourself and your world, and you’ve gone into another one, and you’ve experienced life from someone else’s point of view or an alternate version of what life could be. That’s my favorite part of reading, is looking at the world in a completely different way. So, I do think that there’s this very innate part of who we are as human beings that wants to create and express ourselves.

But then why the fantastical elements? You know, you can tell stories that are set and in the real world, so why do we feel drawn to pull in these imaginary, fantastical, supernatural elements?

I think, like, what I touched on earlier, I think that the level of escapism gives us permission to examine these things more so than we would give ourselves permission to if it were in the real world. The real world is full of really horrendous, harrowing things. I don’t personally like to read stories that are set in the here and now and involve that, because to me that’s just too unlike . . . hat’s what my friend’s going through, that’s what my family members are going through, that’s what I might be going through. Why would I want to have that compounded in me even more? But if it’s in the safe space of, “Oh no, this is told through symbolism. Like, what does the ring symbolize in Tolkien? Is it power? Is it control? Is it addiction? How do the characters all respond to it differently? Sometimes it’s more palatable in that format, and you feel more comfortable exploring these ideas than you would if it was about a more real-world example, but it is funny because when I first started to write Ophelia . . . it reads kind of cozy at the start, which I don’t do cozy, but I was really trying to do cozy because I thought that’s what people want. And it progressively . . . and I found this when I did my first draft. So, of course, I went through and totally made sure that it was a gradual increase, but my imagination completely rebelled. And it was like, “You’re trying to write something cozy and cutesy? Oh, wait till you see what I have in store for you.” So, through the fantastical twists, it brought in a lot of heavy, you know, some people would say dark stuff that I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable writing if it wasn’t through a fantastical twist.

So, maybe I’m just speaking from my own personal experience. Maybe other people can’t relate to that. But I just find that fantasy is using archetype, and it’s our modern mythology that gives us this place to explore these ideas and to ask the hard questions of where do we come from? Where are we going? What values do we hold dear? And sometimes it might be a little bit simplified, but I’m a lover of mythology, and I don’t see any harm in that because most of us have lives that are already complicated enough as it is. So, if you’re going to be edifying yourself through your escapism, all the better.

And what are you working on now?

Right now, I am slowly going through my edit of book three of the Afterworld series to release at an undisclosed date this year. I’ve been plodding along because I was laptop-less for, I think, what, two years? Over two years. And I finally have one again, so I’ve been excited to get back into that world with the characters, and it’s given me the benefit of having a year, I guess, away from the book series. So, I’m coming at it with fresh eyes for the editing process, which is fun because when I forget parts of my own stories, which I often do, it’s really fun to be reading it. And I’ll be like, “I hope this happens next. Oh wow. It does. Imagine that.”

Yeah, I’m currently reading out loud to my wife one of my novels that she’s never heard from ten years ago now. And that’s long enough now that I’m reading it, I’m thinking, you know, “I don’t  remember writing these sentences at all. But that was a pretty good sentence. That was a good scene.”

Isn’t that hilarious?

And, you know, I have vague memories of it, but there’s nothing . . . the specifics are long gone through my head. So, it’s like reading something somebody else wrote almost.

Yeah. And then when you have that level of detachment, you can actually appreciate your own writing without, like, trying to chisel it to death.

Yeah, it’s kind of a nice thing to go back. Of course, you can also go back to an old book and wish you could completely rewrite it, but that’s not my experience in this one, anyway. 

Good!

So that’s kind of the end of the time. So, where can people find you online?

I am on social media under my pen name, so that’s my initials, K then M then Rice, RICE, and author. So, I’m on Facebook, Instagram—Instagram’s where I spend most of my time—YouTube, TikTok. I do technically have a Tumblr blog, but it’s not very exciting. It’s just where I push all the content from my other stuff. So, I’m relatively easy to find online if you want to follow my creativity.

OK. Well, I’m sure people will after we finally got this podcast done.

I know, it’s been a feat! I’m afraid to celebrate it yet.

Yes, I have . . . you know, I haven’t checked the recording, but it says it’s recording, so everything is fine. So anyway, thanks for being on The Worldshapers twice, in a way, but thanks for being a guest and a great chat. Hope you enjoyed it.

Thank you so much for having me. It was lovely talking with you, and thank you to everyone listening for giving us an hour of your time. Time is precious.

OK, well, bye for now.

Bye-bye. Thank you.

Episode 71: Patricia C. Wrede

An hour-and-twenty-minute interview with Patricia C. Wrede, award-winning author of more than twenty-two fantasy novels for readers of all ages, as well as two collections of short stories and one book on writing.

Website
pcwrede.com

Twitter
@PatriciaCWrede

Facebook
@PatriciaWredeAuthor

Patricia C. Wrede’s Amazon Page

Patricia will be instructing the workshop “Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction” for Odyssey Writing Workshops in January and February. Register here by December 7, 2020.

The Introduction

Patricia Collins Wrede was born March 27, 1953, in Chicago. She and her siblings (she is the eldest of five) grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She attended Carleton College, where she earned an A.B. in Biology and took no English or writing courses at all. Following graduation, she earned a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota and worked for a number of years as a financial analyst and accountant. She married James Wrede in 1976; they divorced in 1991. She currently lives in Minneapolis with her cat, Karma.

She began writing fiction in seventh grade and continued off and on throughout high school and college. In 1974, she started work on Shadow Magic, which took her four and a half years to complete and another year and a half to sell. By the time the book was released in 1982, she had completed two more novels. In 1985, she left her day job to write full-time and has been making her living as a writer ever since.

To date, Patricia has published twenty-two novels, two collections of short stories, and one book on writing. Her work is available in twelve languages (including English) and has won a number of awards.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Patricia, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here.

Well, it’s great to have you. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at conventions or anything. But the folks at Odyssey reached out to me and suggested you’d be a great one to talk to. And I certainly agreed with that. And we are going to talk about the workshop you have coming up with Odyssey later on. But I’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you got started (probably you started as a reader—from what I’ve read of your interviews, that’s definitely the way you started)-and how you then became interested in writing and fantasy and in science-fiction-type stories in particular. So how did that all . . .and where you grew up and all that stuff. So, how did that all come about for you?

Well, I grew up with parents who adored reading. I shocked some of my college friends when I told them that the only room in the house that I grew up in . . . I grew up in a big house because we had, my folks had, five kids, so I had four siblings, and we were parceled out. And so, it was a pretty big house. The only room in the house that did not have books in it was the dining room. And the only reason it didn’t have books in it was because there was, like, one wall of glass windows and another wall of windows and an archway door, and then you had to put the whichajigger, the sideboard for the dishes, somewhere, and that took up the last wall, and so there was no wall to put bookcases on. That was the only reason there were no books in the dining room. Officially. There were always books lying around, but they weren’t there . . . they didn’t have a home. But we had books in the kitchen, we had books in the bathrooms, we had books in the linen closet, and we had books in the upstairs hallway. The entire hallway was lined with books along one side. So, I mean, this is where I grew up and the way I grew up. And I was always, I loved reading, when I was five and started going to school, I was so excited about—I remember this, this is one of my very earliest memories—I was so excited about learning to read, I went off to school on the first day, and I came home, and I sat my brother and sister down in the backyard in the sandbox and told them I was going to teach them how to read. I was five, my sister was three, and my brother was two. This did not go well, but that’s how excited I was that, you know, everybody should know how to read as soon as they possibly could. And it just never occurred to me that, you know, two is possibly a little young, especially when you couldn’t really talk clearly.

And you grew up in Chicago, right?

I grew up in Chicago, in the Chicago suburbs. And I started writing my first novel, my very first unfinished novel, when I was in seventh grade. And it was the only thing I’ve written that isn’t technically fantasy, although it probably would have been if I’d gotten more than seven chapters. It was a kids’ wish-fulfillment adventure kind of thing. You know, they just moved into a new house, and he discovers a secret passage, and . . .

As one does.

Yes, as one does, every time you move into a new house, there’s a secret passage and secret rooms, and, you know, all kinds of fun things. And they were just heading into having discovered the secret passage that used to belong to the pirates that led to the castle. How they had a castle and pirates in, like, the middle of the Midwest in America, I have no idea. But I was in seventh grade. I, you know . . . who cared? Plausibility was not my thing. I suppose that makes it fantasy right there.

Of all the books that were lying around, were there some that were particularly influential on you in those reading years?

I read everything, and probably what I loved the most was fairy tales. I went through the entire Andrew Lang fairy tale collection. When I was in seventh grade, my beloved aunt in Alaska sent me a copy of Beowulf as a birthday present, and my parents gave me Bullfinch’s Mythology. And it was . . . I loved mythology and, you know, all of those sorts of stories, the fantasy. Older fantasies, you know, and fairy tales were what I could get my hands on, but this was really before fantasy was its own genre. You really had to hunt to find anything that was fantasy. It wasn’t until I got to high school that Lord of the Rings hit big in the United States, and suddenly you started being able to get fantasy. But there still was just not enough of it.

Yeah, I remember that. I’m a little just a little bit younger than you, I think. I was born in ’59, and I remember that. I remember as a kid, you know, you just couldn’t find the stuff. If you found something that was really fantastical, it was a rare treat. There was more science fiction, I think, but the actual fantasy stuff . . . 

There was a lot more science fiction. So in high school, I mean, I read all the fantasy I could get my hands on, but most of what I read was science fiction because that was what there was. It was also what my dad read, and so I didn’t have to buy it myself. I could, you know, I mean, I only had so much allowance, and books were cheaper, but they were still expensive when you were in seventh grade. But I, you know, I got books for my birthdays. I had, you know, the Oz books. If you wanted something that’s influential, those and the Narnia chronicles were probably the first. I have almost the complete set of Oz books. I’m still missing two or three of the Ruth Plumley Thompson volumes, but I have the others, and I loved those. Probably my other big influences were The Man from Uncle and Rocky and Bullwinkle.

I remember those, too.

I’m absolutely sure those were important influences. And I get in trouble with English teachers every time I say that because they’re just not respectable. But, you know, when I grew up, fantasy wasn’t respectable either.

When you started writing, like, that first unfinished book when you were seven, did you share it? I always ask this question because some people did, and some people didn’t. I did when I was writing stuff as a teenager and so forth, and it kind of helped me know I wanted to write because people actually enjoyed what I wrote. Did you have people who are reading the stories you were writing in those early years?

Only my mother. And she was probably the other huge influence because there I was in seventh grade, and I told her I was writing this story, and she said, “Really?” And I showed her the pages, and she took them away, and she typed them up on her typewriter in proper manuscript format. Because she also wrote. I never was allowed to read her stuff because she wrote for the confessions magazines.

Oh.

And that was just not something that you . . . by modern standards, they’re extremely tame, but at the time, that was something you just didn’t even admit to, to your children. She didn’t even save any of her stuff when she passed away. The only thing she had kept was a manuscript for a children’s book based on the Mother Goose fairy tales, or rhymes, Mother Goose rhymes, that she had finished. She didn’t save any of her less-respectable stuff, but she wrote for the confession magazines for a while, for a couple of years, so she knew proper manuscript format, and she typed it all up for me. And I just thought it looked so professional. And she didn’t say a word about the fact that I must have written it during my classes because, you know, that was the only time that I could have produced this much. But she didn’t say a word. She just typed it all up and gave it back to me. And I got seven chapters before life happened, and I moved on to other things.

My mom was a prolific letter writer, but she was also a secretary, and she had an IBM Selectric at home, and she typed up my first short story in proper format. 

Yes.

And that really made me feel very professional. I was about the same age.

Yes.

It was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” was my first complete short story, so . . .

Ah-ha!  Yes. I didn’t have a title for mine. It was only seven chapters, and it was never finished, but it was a novel. The first thing I tried to write is a novel. And then I had a couple of, I guess you’d call them articles, they were humorous stuff, in the high school magazine that they had. I did do a couple of things, but they were all non-fictional kind of humorous high-school slice-of-life things. And in college, I didn’t really have a lot of time to write. What I produced in college, somewhere along in between high school and the end of college, I got the notion that the proper way to write was to start with short stories and learn your craft. And then, when you had finally gotten good enough, you would write a novel. And so, I created this life plan. And I also got the . . . it had never occurred to me that you could actually make a living writing. And so, I created this plan for myself, a life plan. I was going to write and, you know, really work on my short stories from time to time as kind of a hobby for the next 15, 20 years. And when I hit . . . that would give me enough time to get really good at it and start selling my short stories and have a real track record here so that when I hit 40 and had my midlife crisis, I could quit my day job and write a book and still have something for an income. I was very practical about this.

It didn’t work out quite the way I expected. You know, I did write quite a few short stories. It turns out I’m not really a short story writer; I’m a novelist. And I kept writing them and sending them out, and I did get better. And after a while, they started coming back with notes on them from the editor saying things like, “This sounds like Chapter 3 of a novel, and this sounds like the plot outline for a novel.” And you’d think I would have bought a clue at that point, but I didn’t. I kept writing short stories and having them rejected. And finally, I had an idea for something that I knew was not a short story. It was a novel. And I wasn’t at the point where I was supposed to . . . my plan said that I was supposed to sell a bunch of short stories first, but I really wanted to write it. And so, I said, “All right, fine, I’ll write it, and I will stick it in the bottom drawer because . . . I won’t tell anybody. I just won’t tell anybody that I cheated and did the novel now. So, I did write it. It took me a long time because I wasn’t really paying that much . . . I wasn’t really focused on it. I was still trying to write short stories. And when I eventually finished it, it was sort of like, “Well, I could put it in the drawer.” But by this time, I had internalized the idea that when you finish something, you sent it out because editors do not do house-to-house searches for manuscripts. You have to put it on their desk. And so, I went, “Well, it’s done. What the heck?” So, I started, I put it in the mail, and it got rejected from the first place, with a lovely encouraging rejection letter from Lester Del Ray. And then, you know, I sent it to a couple of other places, and it got rejected. And finally, I sent it to Ace Books, and they accepted it, and they bought it. And, I was like, “Well, hey, cool.” And I never looked back from there. And that was Shadow Magic.

All those years that you were writing short stories and so forth, you’d actually studied biology, and then you got your MBA . . .

Yes.

. . . were you taking any formal writing, training of any sort? Did you ever do that during those years?

Nope. Nope, none at all. I had . . . I took no English classes at all in college. The high grammar school and high school that I went to both had excellent English programs in terms of the fundamentals. I mean, diagramming sentences. Remember, diagramming sentences?

My dad taught English, and he was big on that.

The design firm Pop Chart Lab has taken the first lines of famous novels and diagrammed those sentences. This one shows the opening of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

Nobody does that anymore. But diagramming sentences, that was a big thing. And so, I had a pretty good grasp of grammar and essay-writing structure and that sort of thing. But I, you know, once I passed high school, when I got to college, my philosophy was, I looked at the course requirements, I skipped out of the required . . . they required, like, the basic essay-writing class, and my AP exams were enough to let me skip that . . . and I looked at the classes, and I went, “OK, all of these English classes are about reading books. I know how to read books.” But the other things in that particular distribution requirement were things like history and art and, you know, those kinds of things. And I went, “You know, OK, I’m going to take stuff that I wouldn’t do by myself because I wouldn’t know where to start or I don’t know anything about it, and I want a little more guidance.” So, I took Art of the Far East, and I took History of India, and I took classes in subjects that  I would not have explored or would have had a much harder time exploring on my own. And I did indeed, you know, read a lot of Shakespeare and other stuff. But no, I did not take any . . . Carlton didn’t offer creative writing, you know, formal creative writing. They may have had, like, one English class in it, but most of the English classes were more traditional English literature, study of English literature. And I figured I could read that on my own. So I did. And never, ever did take any creative writing classes.

And all of those other things you studied, have they fed into your writing over the years?

Oh, yeah. Everything always feeds into your writing. And, you know, people ask about sources, and really, writing, it’s kind of like making stone soup. You know, that folktale?

Yeah.

For listeners who might not, it’s a folk tale about a guy in the middle of the plague years who comes to a town, is begging, and they say we aren’t going to, you know, we have nothing. And he says, “Well, that’s fine. You’ve got a big pot. I can make stone soup for everybody.” And so, they give him a big pot, and he puts a stone in and a whole lot of water in and lights a fire under it and starts making soup and tastes it after a while and says, “Coming along great, but you know, some onions would be just the treat.” So somebody goes and gets some onions, and they put the onions in the pot. And then, a little while later, he checks it again. He said, “Yeah, yeah, I could use . . . a few carrots would be great.” And he keeps this up with each of the possible ingredients, and the villagers keep bringing him stuff. And finally, it’s all done, and it’s great soup, and everybody has some, and they just marvel at the fact that he made it out of nothing but a stone and some water. And writing is a lot like that. You know, people say, “Oh, you made it up all out of your head,” and it doesn’t occur to them that your head has had, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ worth of inputs of, you know, everything in the world, you know, from, you know, going fishing, going on a fishing trip to, you know, playing hopscotch in grade school, to everything you’ve ever read. You know, all writing is based on the writer’s life and in some sense or degree.

I often say when I’m teaching, writing, or talking to writers, the only person you really know well is yourself, and all your characters are going to some extent draw on what you know about yourself and what you’ve observed from the people around you. So, yeah, it’s al kind of, you know . . . “filling the tank” is the expression that sometimes used.

Yeah.

You didn’t take any formal writing courses, but you were a member of a writer’s workshop. And I often get asked about writers workshops . . .

A critique group.

A critique group. “Extremely productive,” it says in your bio here.

So, that would be the Scribblies. And that was a group that . . . originally I think it was six of us formed it and we added a seventh, one of our members moved out of town, and we wanted to stay six, and so we added a seventh and then she came back to town and so we just stayed at seven until everybody kind of went off in their own directions. But yeah, that was me, Steve Brust, Kara Dalkey, Nate Bucklin, Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull.

Pretty good collection of names there.

Yeah. Well, at the time, none of us was published, you know, we were all beginners. Will and Emma were, I think, the only ones who had taken a creative writing class, and Pamela had a Master’s in English, so she was our grammar maven. But it turned out to be a really great balance of people because everybody was really, really good at a different thing. And so, when you gave them a piece of writing to critique, everybody would spot something different, and the people who spotted it . . . you know, Pamela was really great at doing characters and dialogue, and when she said there was something wrong with the dialogue, there was something wrong with the dialogue. There were different people who had sort of different areas of expertise. It all flowed together really well, and it was enormously helpful. And critiquing other people’s stuff was almost more useful than having my own stuff critiqued. You know, your own stuff . . . when people give you advice about your own stuff, the tendency is to think in the back of your head, “What? You don’t know anything about that. That’s perfectly all right. That’s fine.” But when you see some other person’s stuff getting torn apart into tiny, tiny little pieces, you think to yourself, “Well, I’d better check and make sure I’m not doing that because I don’t want them to do that to me.” Tat’s really useful. It’s a really useful reaction. So, yeah, the right crit group can be—it can be, sometimes they’re destructive, but you just have to be aware of that, and it’s a matter of picking the right people and the people who are destructive in a constructive way, if that makes any sense.

Creative destruction.

Something like that. People are not afraid to point out your mistakes, but who don’t make you feel like you can’t correct them or that you’re smaller because you made the mistakes. You know, you don’t need people who are showing off how great they are; you need people who are trying to make your story better, honestly and truly, and that you can help them make their story better. That’s the, I think to me,  the ultimate thing in a critique group. Now, you had another question?

I was going to say you’ve done quite a bit of teaching as well over the years.

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

And I have found, like, I just finished a term as writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I was at the Regina Public Library a few years ago doing the same thing. And I always find that looking at other people’s, sort of like what you’re just talking about, looking at students’ work or other writers’ work and trying to help them with it is very helpful to mine, as well. Do you find that, you know, by . . . what’s the line from The King and I, “If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught”? Do you find that to be true?

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s one of the most rewarding things to do, but it’s also really fun to see, just to see what other people come up with because one of the things about writing is everybody’s process is different. And after doing this for 35, 40 years, the one thing I’ve discovered is that every book, the process is different. You know, there’s something that I think of as my normal process, but I think that only works on about 50 percent of the books I write. The other ones just go off on their own. They do their own thing. And you can’t predict which ones are going to be like that and which ones aren’t. They just . . . it’s how it happens and watching what other people do just . . . it fascinates me, all the different ways that people work and, you know, how they take an idea and something that I thought was very straightforward and pointing to the left and this is exactly where this is going to go, and no, it veers off, and it goes totally to the right and, you know, upends itself, and it’s just fascinating.

And that’s also what this podcast is about, so that’s a perfect segue into your particular way of writing. And as you said when we were talking about this before we did the interview, you actually have different ways of working on different books. So instead of focusing on a single book, which I often do in the podcast, we’ll just talk about your process in general in the ways that it varies for different kinds of books. And the first one is a question that everybody asks, and it’s a cliché, I know, but it’s still a legitimate question: “Where do you get the ideas?”

Where do you get your ideas . . .

Or, I often like to say, rather, “What are the seeds from which your stories grow?” because that’s not quite the same.

That’s a little better question. But the thing is that ideas are the easy part. Ideas are all over the place. It’s like, how do you stop having ideas? A question I usually ask people is, “How do you not have ideas?” You know, for me, getting the ideas, like I said, it’s the easy part. They are all over the place. Emma Bull and I a couple of years ago were at an art gallery when they were living out in Los Angeles. I was out there for a convention, and the two of us went to, a lot of us, actually, went to an art gallery, and we were in a whole room, one of the rooms of portraits of people from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, and we said, “Well, look at that? Doesn’t she look like a ghost?” And for the next half-hour, we were going down the portraits, assigning them roles, you know, “Yes, she’s obviously the ghost. And this is obviously her husband. He must have killed her. He doesn’t look very nice. But, you know . . .”, and we had this whole thing just from looking at the portraits and looking at their faces and saying, “This is what he looks like, and this is what she looks like. And, you know, that’s the scullery maid who, you know, poisoned the soup.” I mean, it was just . . . neither one of us went there expecting that, but, you know, we came out with, I’d say, things that could have been ideas for probably two or three books or maybe a series, I don’t know. Neither one of us ever did anything with them as we were just, you know, sitting there having fun. It’s just, you know, ideas are all over the place. You look at pictures, you look at things out your window, you know, whatever.

So how do you decide which ideas are worth the time and effort to turn into a finished story?

The ones that won’t let me alone. There are always ideas that keep coming back. It’s you know, you think, “Well, that’s a good idea, but it’s not ready yet, it’s not finished.” And you put it away in . . . some of those sort of go to the great idea graveyard in the sky and nothing ever happens, and nothing ever comes of them, but other ones, you know, I finish a book, and I’m casting around for the next one, “Oh, hey, here’s that thing. Here’s that story, that idea about . . . that I was going to do . . . I’ve had that idea for ten years . . .” And some ideas, there’s one of them that I think I’ve started, I thought I was going to write that book three times. And the characters that I put into the idea didn’t go the way I thought that book would go. And so, I’ve got three books out of the same idea and never actually gotten that particular idea down on paper yet. My usual process in terms of writing is to start with all the prewriting and the outlining and the, you know, coming up with a plot, the plot outline, you know, somewhere usually between five pages and twenty-five pages of details about what’s going to happen and where. It’s usually about five to ten pages, I think it is . . . five single-spaced pages, which would be ten manuscript pages, and so I do this plot outline and then when I think I’m finally ready, I sit down, and I do the first chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and I look at the chapter. And the chapter has nothing to do with the plot outline except some of the names are the same. And so, I throw away the plot outline, and I write a new one based on the chapter that I actually wrote. And I write the second chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and the first paragraph’s fine because that describes the first chapter, which I had already written when I did this version of the plot outline. But the rest of it really is not right; it has nothing to do . . I mean, more of the names are the same. And so, I ditch that, and I write another plot, and I can continue doing this for about ten chapters, until I’m solidly in the middle of the book, at which point it takes so much psychic energy to plow through the middle of the book that I stop doing outlines and, you know, by then I usually know where I’m going. That’s kind of my standard . . . as I say, the one that works for about 50 percent of the books that I do.

It’s kind of an externalized thought process, where the thinking that would otherwise just stay in your head, you’re putting it down on paper as you go along. That’s what it sounds like to me.

Kind of. It’s . . . well, not really, because that, I mean, the plot outline, sometimes I use some of the incidents that I put in there. But more often it’s, I need the plot outline because it gives me a false sense of security. I have the plot outline, so it’s like I know where I’m going. This is going to be a book for sure. I’ve got a plot outline. I know where it’s going. I don’t know where it’s going, and it doesn’t go where I thought it was going, but I have a plot outline. And the other reason I need a plot outline is because it gives my back brain something to rebel against, which is very important for me. You know, the minute somebody tells you, you know, “Well, this is what happens,” the back brain goes, “No, it isn’t. No, it isn’t. I have this much cooler idea.” So, that’s kind of my normal process.

You said that’s for about 50 percent of your books. What would be some of the books that were written using that process?

The first three or four for sure. Shadow MagicDaughter of WitchesSeven Towers, the first of the Frontier Magic Books, which didn’t end at all the way I thought it was going to be, it developed into a series. Mairelon the Magician. The ones that don’t work like that have other things going on. Snow White and Rose Red, it was a . . . that’s the fairy tale of “Snow White and Rose Red,” and basically, I was asked for Terri Windling’s fairy tale line to do a novel version, to do a novel adaptation of some kind, of my favorite fairy tale. A bunch of us were doing it because it was a series. And so, I started that one with the fairy tale, and it had to follow the fairy tale. So, I couldn’t let my back brain go too wild in terms of the plot. But it turns out that when you do that, fairy tales are so stripped down in terms of plot and everything else that your back brain has plenty of room to go in all kinds of interesting directions. And that was the first time I tried doing alternate history, or in that case, it wasn’t very alternate, it was more history with magic in the cracks. You know, I was setting it in Elizabethan England, and, you know, John Dee was a real character, he was the queen’s magician. So was Ned Kelly. And so, I had a lot of fun doing real history along with the Queen of Faerie and various other plot elements in there. Talking to Dragons was the first time I ever did an entire book totally pantsing. I had no plot outline, I had no plot, I had no idea who the characters were. I had, I started that book with a title and the first line. Actually, I started with the title. I got the first line on the way home, driving home from the party where I got the, was talking about the title. And I just started writing the first line when I got home. And by the time I finished writing the first line, I’d actually written a paragraph, and it’s like, “OK, fine, I’ll save that for when I figure out what this book is about.” And the next morning, I woke up. “I know what the second paragraph is!” And so I sat down to write it, and I wrote the second paragraph, and I ended up with a page and a half, and it’s like, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I really want to find out, and the only way I’m going to find out is to write the rest of this book.” So, I wrote Talking to Dragons that way. Totally, totally pantsing, I had no idea what was going on until almost the end of the book. And then, of course, the prequels to that were, to some extent, I had an outline that I was stuck with because Talking to Dragons is the fourth book in the series. So, you know, when I was asked to go back and do the first books, I kind of had to . . .I got to make a few changes, but I couldn’t change anything major. The Star Wars novelizations, of course, I had the script, and they were very strict about not making changes of any sort. About the best I could do was . . . I mean, there were things I certainly made up. I made . . . the script in that scene in The Phantom Menace, the scene at the end where the, uh, Obi-Wan and the Liam Neeson character, I can’t remember his name at the moment, anyway, they’re fighting Darth Maul, and they’re leaping over things and, you know, going around this whole space and everything is this big dramatic set-piece. All the script says is Scene 20, whatever it was, “The Jedi fight.” That was it. That was it. No description of the background, no description . . . I mean, I knew where they were because it said, you know, setting, the factory, whatever, but that was it. I had known . . .you knew that was going to be, like, a five-minute set piece. So I had to pick up a lot of that in ways that hopefully would not conflict with what they did in the final version of the film. So, that was a fun and interesting experience and very different from my usual way of working. So, yeah, different things work differently.

Clearly, with these books, I mean, you’ve had books set in the Regency, you’ve had, you mentioned, the Elizabethan era, you’ve got Ice Age, all these things, and Star Wars . . .clearly, you often end up doing quite a bit of research. What’s your research process?

I did . . . the research actually, frequently, again, it’s being life, the . . . back in the day, one of the things that I started doing on about my second or third book was I started keeping a list of questions because I kept running . . . in The Raven Ring I got to, like, the seventh chapter and the cops showed up, and I hadn’t made up the cops in that world. And so, I had to stop for, like, four weeks while I made up the cops. And it totally stalled my forward progress. And I found that very frustrating. So, I started keeping a list of questions to at least ask myself when I was getting, booting up, the story, like, you know, “OK, what are the police like here?” And since I mostly do fantasy, I had a lot of questions about how magic works and, you know, things like, “Does it need a license? Do you need a license to be a magician, or is it an inborn talent? Is it something you learn in schools, or is it more like driving a car, or is it more like getting a Ph.D.? You know, what’s the education?” You know, things like that. And at the request of some people on a newsgroup that I was on way, way, way back, they wanted to know what this was like. So, I put them up, and they got consolidated into the fantasy-worldbuilding questions, which I still have on my blog, on my website. But those were kind of, the genesis is, sort of looking through them. I don’t go through and answer all the questions, every book. But I look at them and I sort of go, you know, “Am I going to need to know this? Is this something that oh, hey, that gives me an interesting idea?” You know, “I hadn’t thought about what they do for art, but if I make that one character, they’re a painter, that would be really cool and interesting. Nobody’s done that kind of thing before. I’m going to do that.” So, it just . . . and that was really where I got interested in a lot of the aspects of worldbuilding that led me eventually to do this class for Odyssey that I’m going to be teaching in January.

Well, that seems like as good a point as any to talk about that class. What will that look like, and what’s the process if someone wants to be part of it?

Well, they would go to the Odyssey website and register, they’ve got, you know, all the details there. I don’t have . . . I should have copied that website. I think it’s Odyssey.com or Odyssey.org.

Yeah, I’ll put a link to it. I actually do have a description in front of me here somewhere . . .

Yeah. There’s . . . basically, what I want to do in the class is, there’s basically two parts to worldbuilding. There’s the part that everybody thinks of, which is the making it up part, where you’re . . . you know, the Tolkien appendices, where you’ve got massive amounts of information about, you know, what the pottery is like and what the artwork and the culture and the history and the battles and how magic works and all this other stuff. That’s the first part. And that’s important. You need to think about that. But the second part is really the key, and that’s getting it across to the reader in the text, because Tolkien is really the only one who can get away with putting a million appendices at the end of their book and having everybody actually read them. So, you know, all of the important things, getting across . . .and that worldbuilding is something that everybody has to do in every book, because whatever your characters are, wherever they are, whatever culture, even if you’re in 2020, there’s going to be a sizeable number . . if I’m writing a book set in 2020 in Minneapolis, there’s going to be a sizable portion of my readers who have never been to Minneapolis, who don’t know what it’s like, who have no idea what things . . . you know, who’ve never even seen it on television.

Even if you pick someplace like London or New York where you know what all the key buildings and such look like because everybody’s seen them on TV and the movies, there’s an awful lot of London that people just don’t know what it’s like unless they’ve been there and haven’t been there. And there’s going to be people still who haven’t seen it on TV because they just don’t watch those shows. You know, so, even when you’re looking at a real-life place and, of course, the further away it is from the experience of your initial set of readers, the harder or the clearer your presentation of that world has to be for it to be appealing. The Harry Potter books are a great example. I mean, they’re quintessentially British, you know, set in the British Isles, United Kingdom, England and Scotland. So much of it is very, very, very British, and yet she can . .  you don’t have to know that to love the books because she does such a good job of getting the feel of what it’s like across, both in the Dursley’s, the real world and in the wizarding world. You know, there’s translations into Japanese and Indonesian, and all these different places and languages, and they’re appreciated by millions and millions of people all over the world who don’t need to have a cheat sheet of what this means because it’s British and they don’t, you know, they’ve never been to Britain, and they don’t really get how it works. You have to get it across to people, and that’s what I’m hoping to start with, sort of some of the basic aspects of worldbuilding, of the making-it- up part, and then talk more about the getting it across part towards the end.

It is odysseyworkshop.org. I looked it up here.

Yes, that’s excellent.

Well, one of the things that’s mentioned in the description is how worldbuilding can affect the characters. And we’ve talked a bit about your plotting process. But where do you, how do you find your characters, and how much work do you do on them beforehand, and how much do they just grow during the process?

It depends on the book. It depends on the character. A lot of the times, a lot of the times, they just sort of walk into my head. If you’re starting with a character, you do the worldbuilding, and you can start anywhere. And sometimes it starts with character. You know, a character walks into your head, and you sort of look at them and go, “OK, what are they wearing? Swords and a kilt. That’s interesting. All right. We’re looking at maybe medieval Scotland or maybe some kind of roleplaying. Where is this person from? How did they get this sword? Is that a real sword, or is that just for show? Is that a kilt? You know, it’s not plaid. Why are they not wearing . . . OK, then it’s not Scotland. So, who else wears kilts? So, I’ve got a world that has . . . yeah.” And I’m just making this straight up out of, off the top of my head. This is how it works. You know, you dig into the characters, and a lot of it is digging into the character. As I write, I tend to write my way into the characters, as I usually start more with the plot, which is really kind of weird because a lot of the time, the characters are what drives the plot. But the world that you live in shapes the person in real life and in fiction, and it makes a difference. What the world is like is going to shape what the person is like. If you’re actually looking at a medieval peasantry, they’re not going to be literate, most of them. Which means they’re not going to have read books, but they will be oral storytelling, and that’s going to affect the way they see stories and process. You know, skills are going to be different. The kinds of things that they’re used to are going to be different. You take somebody from the 1100s, heck, even from the 1700s, bring them into a room and flip the light switch and they’re going to go, “Magic!”

Mm-hmm.

You know, “Lights came on! Oh, my God. Magic!” It’s all in what you’re used to. There’s a wonderful book by Sylvia Louise Engdahl called Enchantress from the Stars, in which there are three different viewpoints.

I know that one!

Yeah. Where you’ve got the fairy tale version, which is the way the peasant, the native, sees it. And you’ve got the viewpoint of the highly technological aliens who are coming in a . . . to them, it’s all about the, you know, their technology and their machines, whereas, of course, to the native guy, it’s all magic. And then you have the gal from the super-advanced society that’s trying to keep these two very different cultures from clashing, to whom they’re both kind of childish. And it’s really the different views, which are predicated on the cultures and the worlds from which each of these characters come. And so, yeah, the world shapes the characters as much who the character is; if you’ve got a clear idea of the character, then that pretty much defines what the world has to be because that character came out of the world. And you can tell a lot about the world by looking at the character and understanding where they came from and how did they get these ideas or their these viewpoints or beliefs or, you know, this drive to, you know, save the world or destroy the world or whatever they’re going to do.

Once you have a plot and character and all of that, what does your actual writing process look like as far as the actual physical act? You started in typewriter days, as I did . . .

Pardon me?

You started writing on a typewriter, I presume, as I did . . . or first, longhand, I suppose, to begin with . . .

I did. I did typing. I took typing in high school. And I’m forever grateful to my mother for making . . . it’s one of the fundamental things I think that I recommend to everybody is, if you want to be a writer, learn to type, learn to touch-type.

Touch-type.

So, I have a very good friend who blew out several disks in her neck because she’s a hunt-and-peck typist, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, and then she looks up at the screen to see what she typed, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, looks up at the screen and she types, and after 40 years, she’s had several disks in her neck . . . and it’s extremely painful. And touch typing, you don’t have to worry about that.

But I presume you work on a computer now.

Yes, absolutely. As soon as practically as soon as they came out, I had one of the very first Apple II Plus’s, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Yeah, a Commodore 64 was my first one.

I was doing cut and paste when cut and paste meant . . .

Cut and paste.

Scissors and . . . scissors and tape. And yeah, that was exciting. I still remember that.

Do you write a certain number of hours a day, or how does that work for you? And do you work at home or do you like . . . well, everybody works at home now, but do you like to go out to other places to write or how does that all work?

A little bit of everything. Sometimes it helps to, you know, take the laptop to a coffee shop, now that I can do that. It’s been an evolution because, of course, back in the day, you didn’t take the typewriter any place because it was too heavy. And then the computer, of course, was desktops. It wasn’t until laptops came along that it was even a possibility to take your computer out to a coffee shop casually and, you know, out any place. And so, you know, where I write has been kind of an evolution. I’ve always had a desk, at least a desk someplace, and usually had an office. You know, there’s . . . sometimes the office was the spare room, to begin with. But I had an office, and I mostly work in the office, sometimes haul it out someplace else just to get a bit of, you know, change of scenery.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I don’t know. I’m a plodder. I am not . . . most of the time, I’m a plodder.  I’ve had a couple of books where I did a burst writing. But most of the time, it’s a, you know, if you write one page a day, every day without fail, at the end of the year, you’ll have three hundred pages, which is a book, and you can take Sundays and holidays off. And that’s what I do. That’s what I started doing. And that’s basically what I try and do. And it’s gotten harder over time as other life things keep interrupting and getting in the way. It’s been very difficult to concentrate in the past, oh, what is it now, eight, nine months?

Feels like forever.

But yeah, since about last February, it’s been really difficult to concentrate. That, too, depends on whether writing is more like a hobby or more like an escape or whether it is something that requires focus and mental energy, and really, for me, it’s kind of both those things. So, sometimes it works as an escape, and then it’s like, yeah, head down in the book because that lets me ignore all the horrible things. And sometimes, I’m so distracted by all these other things that are going on that I can’t get head down in the book. So, you know, it varies.

Once you have a finished draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers, or do you just revise it yourself?

Oh, I use beta readers. I use beta readers everyplace. I am a rolling reviser. It’s one of the many things . . . I talked about this a lot on the blog. I also have a blog, at pcwrede.com, where I talk about writing and process and have been doing for . . . God, ten years now! That’s kind of scary. But I talk about the process, and I’m a rolling reviser. You know, some people have to do the whole book all the way through and then go back and write it. Some people have to have to get it right almost the first time because their stuff sets up like concrete after, you know, 24 hours, after they’ve let it alone for 24 hours, it’s practically impossible to change. I’m kind of . . . I need to have, what has been written, I really need to know somewhere in my back brain that it’s right, quote-unquote—picture me doing air quotes—in order to continue to make progress. I have learned over 40 years of doing this that I can at times put in a little note that says, “Fix this later,” and actually go back and fix much later. But most of the time, if I realize in Chapter 15 that I just had this brilliant idea, but for it to work, I need to plant something in Chapter 2 and remind people about it in Chapter 7 and 12, I have to stop and go back and plant it in Chapter 2 and do the reminding in Chapter 7 and in Chapter 12 before I can continue with Chapter 15 because when I do the plant, when I do the reminding, it changes what I’m having happened just a little, just enough that in order to get it right from here on out, I have to know what happened back in those places where I’m planting this thing. So, I tend to . . . and the other thing is that when I get really, really stuck, I’ll go back and I’ll start at the beginning, and I’ll just go through and fix things and revise things and reread things and fix them, and usually by the time I get back, I’m not stuck anymore, you know, because I’ve changed enough things or I’ve seen enough things where it’s like, I’ve got the ideas to move on with.

Who are your beta readers, and what do they do for you?

It’s varied a lot over the years. Lois McMaster Bujold and I trade manuscripts all the time.

Pretty good beta reader.

She was . . . I was one of her first, actually. I had . . . back when I sold Shadow Magic, I went to the Chicago WorldCon and met Lillian Stewart Carl, and we, I offered to trade manuscripts with her by mail, and she said, “Well, you know, I don’t I don’t really need that, I have a writers’ group.” This was before that, you know, when I was still hunting for more input. I was in the Scribblies, but I was still hunting for other input, outside input. And she said, “I don’t need that. I have a good writers’ group, but I have this friend in Ohio who doesn’t have anybody. She’s out in the wilds of Ohio. She doesn’t have anybody around who reads or writes science fiction fantasy. Can I give you her your contact?” And that was Lois. And so, you know, she and I started trading critique by mail. I ended up with, like, a four-inch stack of . . . this was before email. So, physical letters until we went, until we did go to email. Then eventually, she moved to town, which made it much easier. But anyway, she’s one of my beta readers. Pamela Dean still is. Caroline Stevermer frequently. Several non-writer friends . . . you know, Beth Friedman. God, I’m missing somebody . . . 

That’s the trouble with starting to name names.

Yeah, yeah, it is. It’s well, especially, there’s a bunch of people that nobody would recognize that, you know, I could name the names, but, you know, it’s not going to mean anything to anybody. But, you know, sometimes the best beta readers are people who are not writers; they’re just readers who are really good at articulating what’s going, what is a problem here, or what they like about this or don’t like about this.

And what kind of feedback do you typically get from your readers that . . . what sorts of things do you find you need to work on?

It varies. Everyone . . . and sometimes it’s the same old things that you thought you had gotten rid of years ago. Sometimes it’s, you know, there’s character stuff, there’s stupid, stupid things like dialogue tags and repeated words, you know. One I remember specifically because it was so annoying was somebody who pointed out that I had used a very unusual phrasing like three times in the same chapter. And it’s like, “How did I not notice that?” You know, but I mean, it’s everything from really picky little details to questions about characters that are very enlightening, like, you know, things like, one asked, you know, “Are these two characters gay?” And I went, “Son of a gun. They are. I didn’t know that. OK.” You know, so it’s there for people who want to see it, but it’s not a big point. Mean, I didn’t know they were until somebody pointed it out. You know, it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” And so there’s things that are . . . things about the characters that I hadn’t even realized, things about the world, things about the plot. Just, you know, major things, and then, of course, the minor word dinks and nitpicks.

And then the manuscript will go to an editor. What kind of editorial feedback is typical for you? Do you find it’s pretty clean, you don’t have to do a lot, or there are occasionally some . . .

It depends on the book.

And the editor, I would presume.

And the editor. They’re very different. There is one editor that, it was always questions. She never made any recommendations; it was always questions about what was happening. I had another editor . . . Jane Yolen was lovely. I mean, she was fun. We were friends. She edited the Enchanted Forest books when she was at Harcourt. And she was . . . we were good friends. In fact, she kind of was the one who browbeat me into writing the prequels. And so, it’s all her fault. But I turned in the first one, and I got back two pages of editorial comments that started with, “Does your husband know about your love affair with a semicolon? Seventeen on one page is too many.” You know, and she was absolutely right.

I like a good semicolon, but that does seem excessive.

It was excessive. It was, like, a manuscript page was about, I think I had my printer set to do 25 lines, and 17 of them had semicolons. It was just way too much. So, yeah, it varies. And then I had one editor who basically . . . had two different editors, in two different places, I had ask for scenes, where I had not put in a particular scene the character . . . in one instance, the character wasn’t there, and in another instance, I was skating very quickly over that part, and it just didn’t seem . . . and the one where I was skating over it wanted the set-piece with that particular scene and the other one, the character wasn’t there, and the editor said, “This seems like a really important scene, and I think you should write it.” So, I had to write ten thousand words to, you know, instead of having the character told about it in a three-paragraph summary, I had to figure out how to get her to go along so she could watch it. And it took about ten thousand words to interpolate that into the book.

But it made the book better.

Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. I’m very pleased with how it came out, but it was a lot of work. So, it really depends. A lot of the time it is pretty clean, I think, but I don’t have anything to judge by except my own stuff, really. So how would I know? I don’t know what the editor sees all the time.

Yeah. They see a lot more stuff than the authors do. My editor is Sheila Gilbert at DAW. And, of course, she’s been doing this for a very long time.

Yes

She’s seen a lot of manuscripts. And she notes . . . she just sees things that I don’t see..

Yes. Yeah, yeah. They see things you don’t see.

And now we’ve actually gone past the hour, but nobody’s counting, so . .  but I should wrap it up here.

Well, I should have warned you upfront, I can talk about writing for hours, literally. I thought . . . I was supposed to have a one-hour interview with somebody at my alma mater, and we ended up talking for five hours, until I got hoarse. So, yeah, I can talk for a long time about writing.

My record is still Orson Scott Card, who went for two hours by the time we were done. So, you know . . .

Ah, yeah.

We’re not there yet. But just to wrap it up with the big philosophical question, really, three: Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And why stories of the fantastic, specifically?

Let’s start backwards. Stories of the fantastic is because I can’t seem to write anything else. I tried to write a mystery once, and it had wizards in it by the second chapter, so I gave up. I was like, that’s what I write. That’s what my back brain hands me, so that’s what I write. Why I write is, again, I just, I mean, I love reading, I love writing, I love telling stories, I’ve always loved telling stories, and writing is a way of doing that. I mean, I think I would write stuff even if I wasn’t selling it and nobody was reading it. It would not be as easy, and it would be very disappointing. Certainly, at this point, it would be very difficult since this is how I make my living. But really, I like the process. I like it even though it’s frustrating and annoying as all get out and, you know, can drive you just absolutely mad at times. It’s still . . . I love the feeling that I get when I know I nailed it, when it’s like, “Yes, there’s that scene, and this is that thing.” And I have this cool thing going, and I got it. And there it is. “Yes, that’s what I wanted.” I don’t know if anybody else is seeing it, what I saw, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I end up having to fiddle with it. But there’s still that moment when there it is down on paper, that scene I’ve been waiting to write for so long.

And I also love the analytical side of it, you know, figuring out why things work, why using this viewpoint is more effective than using that viewpoint, you know, what’s going to work best for this story, how . . .  I love doing that. I love it. I mean, that’s mostly what the blog is, is different angles of a view on everything from . . . well, just pretty much every aspect of writing, I mean, I’ve been doing it for ten years, I think I’ve covered pretty much everything, and I’m still talking about it, which tells you how long I could go on about writing. That’s me, you know, I just . . . the other thing is I do it so that the voices in my head will shut up.

I’ve heard that from a lot of authors. A lot of authors put it that way.

And it’s not necessarily the characters’ voices, it’s the stories themselves. You know, it’s . . . I’ve shot past my exit numerous times on the freeway because I’m sitting there going, “And then they go, right? No, no, no, no, they’ll go left, left. And there there’s . . . yes. And the bridge is out. And the . . .” You know, if I don’t put it down on paper, it keeps changing in my head, and it won’t leave me alone. And so, I have to go home, and I have to write the scene where the bridge is out. And then I’m done with the damn bridge. It’ll leave me alone. But I have shot past the exit multiple times doing, you know, telling myself stories in my head.

Why do you think on the bigger scale, why do any of us write? Why do you think we do this? As a species, I guess.

As a species? I think it’s to explain ourselves to ourselves. You know, it’s . . . stories are a way of transmitting life lessons and teaching people about things that are going on in a wider world. One of . . . I think I heard this bit from Jane Yolen. She had been reading about an anthropologist. She’s very big in fairy tales. And the anthropologist had been collecting fairy tales from native cultures in the north. I think the Inuit was one, but there are several others, and one of . . . and their fairy tales, their stories, are really grim, and they have this custom of, in the wintertime, when it’s dark for 24 hours or very nearly a day, everybody gathers in a hut. And, you know, the children are all there, and they tell these horrible, horrible ghost stories, creepy, scary, nightmare-inducing stories. And at the worst part of it, somebody, one of the adults, sneaks out and they beat on the outside of the tent, you know, to make the scary parts even scarier. And the woman said, “Why do you do this? Why do you do this to your children?” And the person she was interviewing said, “Because they need to be scared. They need to learn how to be scared in a safe place so that they won’t freeze up when it’s a real emergency.” Because if you freeze up when it’s 50 below zero, and you’ve just gone through the ice, you are a dead person. You have to be able to continue to function, and that’s the kind of things that stories do. Most of us are not in that dire of an environment, that we’re under those kinds of threats, but there’s still. . . they are ways of conveying lessons about people, about what is right and what is wrong about dealing with other people, about living in the world, you know, about what kinds of things are mistakes and what kinds of things, you know, you might not recognize as a mistake right now. But in 20 years or 40 years, you will. And sometimes those things are buried really, really deeply entrenched, and they are ways of explaining to ourselves what we’ve learned about ourselves and about other people and about the world. I think that’s kind of as deeply philosophical as I can possibly get on this.

Well, it certainly seems like a good answer to me. OK, let’s wrap it up by finding out what are you working on now? What’s coming up next from you?

OK, I am in the process of doing what I hope will be final revisions to another children’s book called The Dark Lord’s Daughter. It’s about a 14-year-old girl who is, uh, you know, she knows she’s been adopted, and her family has, her adopted family, has kind of fallen on . . . they’ve been having some difficulties, and she and her adopted mother and her little brother are off at the state fair, and they are approached by a gentleman in what looks sort of like a Darth Vader outfit who says, you know, “My lady, I have found you!”, and the next thing they know, the three of them have been transported to an alternate universe. And she finds out that she is the daughter of the former dark lord and is expected to come and take over his kingdom.

That’s a great setup.

And it is nothing like what either side is expecting. She is not what they were expecting to get, and they are, you know, the dark lord’s kingdom is not at all . . . well, let’s put it this way, they had ten years to deteriorate, and it’s deteriorated pretty darn bad. So, she’s got a lot of work to do. And, of course, she’s got her mother and her little brother along to make life interesting.

That sounds fun.

So I’m working on that. And, I don’t have a pub date yet because I’m way behind, and I don’t get to know when it’ll come out until I actually turn it in.

Publishers are annoying like that.

Sometimes. Sometimes.

And where can people find you online?

PCWrede.com. And that’s my Web site and the blog and a lot of other useful information if you poke around on it a bit.

Any social media accounts to mention?

The blog is really the only place where I spend a lot of time. I do have a Twitter account where I mostly make announcements, and there is a Facebook business page, which again is . . . that’s not really run by me, but it also has a lot of announcements about, you know, what’s coming up with my books. Every once in a while, I post something to Twitter, but I’m not really super active there. I have too much else going on.

And once again, of course, you’re teaching the World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction workshop for Odyssey Workshop.

Yes, I think that’ll be fun.

And that runs January 7 to February 4. And the deadline, I believe, is December 9, if anybody’s listening and wants to register.

Yeah. And it’ll be, it’s three classes with about two weeks between. So, you’ve got time to actually apply some of this stuff in between and hopefully come up with new and interesting questions to ask.

OK, well, I guess that wraps it up, then. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Ed, thanks for being here.

I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

Thank you for inviting me!

Bye for now!

Episode 68: James Morrow

An hour-plus interview with James Morrow, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and Grand prix de l’Imaginaire-winning author of eleven novels and many shorter works.

Website
www.jamesmorrow.net

Facebook
@james.morrow.754570

Twitter
@jimmorrow11

James Morrow’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since. As a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated the story of the duck family to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim channeled his storytelling urge toward the production of speculative literature.

The majority of his eleven novels are written in satiric theological mode, including the critically acclaimed Godhead trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award twice, for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award twice, for his story “The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award once for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

In recent years, he’s produced historical fiction informed by a fantastical sensibility, including The Last Witchfinder, about the birth of the Enlightenment, and Galapagos Regained, about the coming of the evolutionary worldview, and his novel-in-progress sardonically reimagines the 325 AD Council of Nicaea. The French translation of his Darwin extravaganza recently received the Grand prix de l’Imaginaire. His most recent work to see print is The Purloined Republic, one of the three novellas that constitute And the Last Trump Shall Sound.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you very much, Ed.  Happy to be here.

Happy to make the connection. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at a convention or anything in person, but it was through Mickey Mickkelson, who’s my publicist and is doing some work as well with Arc Manor. I guess we made the connection because of And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which is out or about to come out. Is it out or about to come out? As we talk, because it will be out by the time this goes live.

September 22 is the pub date. I see you’re about to appear on The Coleman Show, which I’m also booked on. You’re doing that tomorrow, right?

Yeah. As we talk. By the time this comes out, this will all be a few weeks in the past. I sometimes forget that when I’m doing these things, that this is not a live broadcast, but it does not live, it is recorded. And at the time it comes out, all of this stuff will be out. Well, let’s that start, as I do, by taking you, as I like to say, I’m totally going to put reverb on it someday, back into the mists of time, where, as I also like to say, it is mistier for some of us than others. How did you become interested in, you know, you mentioned writing your first story when you were seven years old, so obviously, that came along early, but not just writing, but also science fiction fantasies specifically. How did that come about for you, and where did you grow up and go to school and all that good stuff?

Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a little town called Roslyn. I guess there are two different tributaries feeding the river of my imagination. One comes from low culture, sort of popular culture, the other from a more literary zone, high, high culture. I’d say, unlike the majority of guests you have on The Worldshapers, I was not a voracious reader as a kid. My introduction to genre was through the more tawdry venue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I still have the first, Forrey Ackerman’s sort of love letter to the history of horror films, and so was watching movies on television that had that fantastic sensibility that ultimately, I would argue, led to my producing prose fiction in that genre. My friends and I in high school subscribed to Famous Monsters and would go to each other’s houses to watch these movies. And we started our own filmmaking club.

Growing up in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, I was very near a large cemetery, and this became the setting for about half the movies that we made. But we did, these were 8mm home movies, but we thought of them as feature films, and we were in them, but we thought of ourselves as adult actors. But we did adaptations of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the other films we did had titles like Cagliostro, The Sorcerer, and The Futurians. But let me then jump to the other tributary of more literary or high culture. In my 10th-grade world literature class taught by the amazing Mr. Giordano (sp?), I came to understand for the first time that a novel was not simply about following the vicarious adventures of non-existent people, that a novel could be a matrix of ideas, and novelists were people who had something to say. And the syllabus was just extraordinary. We read Voltaire’s Candide, we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plays of Ibsen, Kafka’s The TrialMadame Bovary by Flaubert. And I just was so entranced by the sensibility of those authors. They were people who did not settle for the received wisdom of their day. They stood outside of their cultures. They were at odds with conventional thought, and they tended to be very much religious skeptics, doubters. And not just . . . it was kind of like my inverse road to Damascus. You know, I wanted to sign up for the sort of honest atheism of Albert Camus and I, you know, and I thought maybe I could do it myself someday, that I could write a novel of ideas.

Science fiction, of course, demands that you play with ideas. It’s often called the literature ideas of ideas. You get this wonderful toolkit when you join that club of robots and time travel and rocketships, all of which become techniques for getting perspective on the world, for holding reality up to a kind of funhouse mirror and, you know, and then maybe telling people a thing or two, arguing for a way of seeing the world.  And one day, I found myself possessed by an idea for my first novel.

When you were doing the film work, were you doing some of the scripting for those films where you’re writing for that?

Yeah, they were my . . . I guess there were like four of us who were in this, who had created this club, and I was sort of recognized me as the one who did pretty well with dialogue and was the writer of the group. But we all took turns behind the camera, we all took turns in front of the camera. I usually did the editing as well. I love the editing process. And I would say to this day, my fiction-making for me is filmmaking by other means, that when I cut into a manuscript, when I leap into the rough draft of a chapter as it comes pouring out of my printer and I sit down with a pencil and a cup of coffee, to me, trimming and reshaping the prose is analogous to what I did for many years editing films, trimming the frames, rearranging the images.

I have to ask if you still have the story of the dog family bound in yarn by your mother, you still have a copy of that.

I do! That managed to survive. I have it in a file upstairs. And I still have most of the 8mm movies that we made. Although I haven’t played them recently. I have a feeling the splices would fall apart, and the soundtracks may have, the tape may have degenerated. I’m afraid to find out.

Were you writing prose during that time as well, your teen years, and so forth? And were you sharing those stories with people? Or was it pretty much you were in that film making side of things?

Yeah, I mean, I had an urge to tell stories. I had, I think, a feeling for narrative, but I expressed myself in other media, the filmmaking . . . we put on some plays, I used to draw my own comic strips and comic books and, you know, didn’t turn to prose fiction until, you know, my first novel, really, though I always, I loved the medium of the novel from a very young age. I thought there was just something magical and luminous about those books in my parents’ modest library that I knew were fiction. And even before I was very adept at reading and way before I would imagine composing stories myself, I would take volumes off the shelf in my parents’ living room, and then I would impose on them my own novel. I would sort of be telling a story to myself as I was turning the pages of the novel, pretending that it was something that I had written.

I have to ask because so much of your work is, as you said in your bio, theologically inspired, did you have a religious upbringing, were you learning theological material during your youth?

No. My parents took me to Presbyterian Sunday School, but I think they were not really serious Christians themselves. I think they had a kind of inoculation theory: give the kid a little bit of religion, you know, lest he someday show up announcing that he’s decided to become a monk, and you deprived me of God, and how dare you not tell me about the divine! And, you know, I honestly believe that was their theory. So, I had . . .it was a very low-level experience. I mean, even though I did have that inverse road to Damascus I mentioned earlier, thanks to Voltaire and Camus, etc., there just wasn’t that much, there’s not that much to lapse from when you’re a sort of white-bread, you know, middle-class suburban Christian. So, the impulse to critique Christianity does not come out of any kind of trauma. I was not in rebellion against a religious upbringing. I’d never been assaulted by a nun holding a ruler or anything like that. It was much more, these voices spoke to me, these doubters like Camus and Dostoyevsky and Ibsen. And I just wanted to try that myself.

Well, you mentioned that you didn’t really tackle prose until you had the idea for your first novel. When did that come along? And also, what did you study in university?

I majored in English, and my speciality was creative writing, but I still wasn’t doing a lot of prose fiction. My main project was a screenplay, and I actually had Joseph Heller as a teacher, which was a wonderful experience.

Not bad!

And he was very interested in what I was doing. It was a course in playwriting, and he himself had a play running on Broadway at the time called We Bombed in New Haven. And he was taken with the comedy, the three-act comedy that I was producing in his class. But I did not come out of the program at the University of Pennsylvania with a belief in myself as a novelist or as someone who was going to get into this wonderful universe of science fiction. I became an educator for a while, and I had used my filmmaking experience to become a media educator and was hired by several public school systems to, like, teach animation to junior-high-age kids or teach students how to make slide tapes. But at that time, in my circle of media educators, there was a lot of discussion about the effect that mass media was having on children. And most of that conversation was about the deleterious effects of television and movies on kids. There were books like The Plug-in Drug getting a lot of attention, very anti-television. And I said to myself, “Well, I can understand why people are worried that that TV is turning kids into lemmings, but what about the contrary argument, that television has a kind of cathartic effect, and that television maybe drains off impulses that one otherwise might be inclined to act out in the real world, anti-social impulses.” And I said, “You know, there’s kind of science-fiction novel in there. What if there was a society that was totally pacifistic, where there’d never been a robbery or a rape or a killing? And if initially this is a mystery, how in the world did they achieve this, this blessed state?” And then it turns out that they have a technology that lets them sort of hook themselves up to their television sets, except they control the content. If they’ve had some bad experience that day, an argument with the boss, or maybe even getting fired from their job, you could go home and shoot the boss on television, and nobody would get hurt and would drain off your desire you might have to commit that sort of crime in the real world. And then the plot became, what if on this utopian planet an astronaut arrives, falls in love with one of these, they’re human migrants, falls in love with them and decides that she needs just a little bit of an aggressive instinct to be fully human, that maybe, you know, you’ve got to have a dark side, you’ve got to have that dark side for real, not just in your fantasies. And so, he injects her with a little bit of the violence that these people drain off into a rive, a moat that encircles their city. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. She has no immunity and becomes a maniac. And then he’s faced with this terrible dilemma: is he going to kill the woman he loves to save a civilization he hates? 

So, the whole thing arrived full-blown, all three acts. I found an agent, and we discussed whether this was, in fact, a science fiction novel or just a novel of ideas. And we ultimately decided it should be marketed as science fiction. She took it to . . . Holt Rinehart and Winston at the time had a line of SF they were publishing, Larry Niven and Robert Checkley, and they did Heinlein. This was Donald Hunter, the late lamented Donald Hunter at Holt. And I was off and running. I never looked back. The book didn’t become a bestseller, but it got quite a bit of review attention. The Science Fiction Book Club picked it up, it came out in paperback, and I said, “Okay, I’ve sort of kept the commitment I made with myself way back in tenth grade to see if I could write a novel of ideas.”

I want to go back to the university and studying creative writing/ I often ask authors who have done that formally if it turned out to be helpful. It sounds like, in your case, maybe it actually was. Not every author tells me that it was. So, what was your experience?

Certainly, having Joseph Heller and his sensibility was a big influence on me. He was very self-effacing. I would say that, you know, Catch-22, as far as he was concerned, its unbelievable success was kind of a fluke. Every year many worthy novels come out and disappear and die a dog’s death. Now, that said, it was just, you know, Catch-22 is, as you might imagine, a touchstone for me, James Morrow the satirist. That said, the other creative writing classes I had were happening at a time . . . this is, what, circa 1968, ’69, before it was thought that you could teach the crafting of prose fiction systematically. And so, the only thing that went on in these classrooms was workshopping, because reacting to each other’s manuscripts, as opposed to, you know, the sort of, I wouldn’t call formulas, but the sort of incredibly good advice you get, you would get from, let’s say, a John Gardner in his book—On Writing Fiction, as I recall, is the title. And, you know, there was no discussion of how to negotiate the marketplace, what it meant to get a literary agent, how important that could be, you know, nor was there a whole lot of explicit teaching about how do you create a character? How do you structure a plot? You know, what are the techniques you can use to engage a reader? What is the difference between suspense and surprise, et cetera, et cetera? And so, yeah, I can’t praise the other aspects of the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the time. I suspect it’s rather different now, maybe much more influenced by institutions like Iowa’s writers’ workshops.

The playwrighting interests me, as well. I’m an actor. I’ve done quite a bit of stage work and have written a couple of plays and directed them and all that sort of thing, and I always feel that that’s helpful in writing my fiction in a way and that I always have a very clear image of where everybody is in relationship to each other in my head, in the scene. And I think some of that comes from writing plays. And then I also think, of course, the dialogue side of things. Do you feel that that background in playwriting and scriptwriting has benefited your fiction?

Yes, very much so. I sometimes think of myself as a playwright manque, though, of course, it’s even harder to convince money people to put on a play of yours than to publish your novel.

Yeah, that’s for sure.

To say nothing of filmmaking. But yeah, I do see my work, as it may be, both playwriting and filmmaking by other means, and I’m told that my novels are visual and vivid, and I do think in terms of scenes. Not all prose fiction makers do, they’re maybe a little more free form. They don’t break into discrete acts or scenes or sequences or the three-act structure. But that’s where I am. These epics of mine are not only patterned on the structure of films, but I actually draw inspiration a great deal from the Hollywood product. At least, it’s always, whenever I’m working on it, it becomes an excuse to look at a bunch of movies and see how I’m going to get energy.

When you, I mean, you mentioned doing it in high school, but have you done acting yourself since then?

Very, very little. No, I’ve fallen away from that.

Well, you know, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always try acting. There’s a good, solid career choice.

I think of the criticism from Peter Ustinov, who, as you probably know, was a man of many talents, a Renaissance man, and his whole family was into the arts. I mean, they were all musicians or writers or painters.

I think I read his autobiography, yeah.

Someone brought to the Bronx, brought to the family dinner, a guy she was dating. And they asked, “Well, what does he do for a living?” And he said he was a stockbroker. And they said, “You’re a stockbroker. Can you make a living from that? Why don’t you go into something safe, like poetry?” Because they were all successful. Not the norm.

No. My favorite actor joke, which I’ve heard a few times, is, “What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?” And it’s, “A pizza can feed a family of four.”

I’ve heard that joke as being the difference between a science-fiction writer and a pizza.

Yeah, it’s the same joke.

So, let’s talk about your creative process. We’re going to talk about The Last Witchfinder, which I’ve read a chunk of. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I certainly intend to. This came out a few years ago, but I’ll let you give a synopsis of it and explain what it is.

I had an amazing encounter, this would be 35 years ago, with a book by a physicist at the University of Massachusetts named Edward Harrison. The book is called Masks of the Universe. And the essential argument of the book is that we, the human species, will probably never know the Universe with a capital U. It will be, that kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge, will be denied to us. What we have are a succession, throughout human history, of universes, each with lowercase u, and this book, Masks of the Universe, is a kind of history of the evolution of human intellectual thought and scientific thought, vis a vis all these masks. So, Harrison takes us on a tour, from the magic universe of Paleolithic people to the mythic universe of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and other early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the divine universe of medieval Christian Europe, the mechanistic universe of Newton, the Age of Reason, and then our contemporaneous relativistic universe of modernity, of scientific modernity. Harrison is particularly, was particularly, obsessed with what he calls the witch universe, that time when everybody understood that demons were what made things happen, that the world was not so much enchanted as haunted.

It was called the Renaissance ex post facto. But I encountered this amazing sentence, and I just Xeroxed it, and I want to read it. This is from page 214 in Masks of the Universe. Harrison says, quote, “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes,” that is between the medieval and the Age of Reason, quote, “a bedlam of distraught world pictures terrorized by a witch universe, created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thrall to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” So, I read that sentence, and I said, “Oh, my God, there’s an idea for a novel, an entire society nearly destroyed by its own theology. I mean, I have to work with that someday. I have to be able to turn that into an epic, even if Harrison is overstating the case,” and I think perhaps it was. “But for the intervention of science, Europe would have destroyed itself. I’ve got to work with that theme!” But I couldn’t come up with an entree, year in, year out. How in the world could one traumatize an event so large and momentous?

And after a gestation of 15 years, I had a breakthrough, and I said, “You know, a character,” in this case, I intuitively knew she must be a woman, “a woman born in about 1678, would have lived through this amazing transition, this rotation from the witch universe to what we call retrospectively the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.” And so, The Last Witchfinder was born and became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifetime mission to try to bring down the parliamentary witchcraft statute of 1604. She has many adventures in the course of trying to fulfill this mission. It’s really, it’s both a mission and a pledge to her Aunt Isobel, a kind of deathbed promise. Isobel is herself mistaken for a witch and executed by the powers that be in the England of early modern Europe. Eventually, eventually, Jennet engages in a very creative act. She masquerades as a witch and in a sense then puts herself on trial for consorting with demons, and because she’s become good friends with the young Benjamin Franklin, she actually becomes a lover of Benjamin Franklin, this is circa 1731, she knows she will get publicity in Franklin’s periodical, the Pennsylvania Gazette. So, this sort of media circus trial occurs in Philadelphia, and Parliament takes note of it in England. And so, this is the kind of science fiction, I guess, that would be called secret history or hidden history. This is the real story that you’ve not known until now of why that statute was finally taken off the books.

So, once you had this idea, what did your planning process and research process . . . because clearly, you put a lot of research into this. I noticed in your foreword you were talking about a great deal of this is reality, with a few tweaks of what we . . . well, what we think is the real history . . . here and there to tell the story. So, what did your research and planning process look like? And is this typical of your work?

I always do a lot of research, and it’s mysterious to me. And I don’t want to become too conscious about it, self-conscious about it. How does one know when to stop the research and write the damn novel? I mean, my facetious answer to your question would be, first I write the novel, and then I do the research, you know, sort of retrofitting. But it’s more of a dance. It’s very complicated. As I did the research, a lot of actual history kind of played into my hand. I felt very fortunate that, for example, when Jennet is abducted by Indians around 1695, she’s now living, she starts out living in England, but then she goes to the colonies because that’s where her family has moved. She ends up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and it turns out that, in fact, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki in 1695.

A big breakthrough for me was, I always knew that I wanted to use not only Benjamin Franklin but also Isaac Newton as sort of personification of the two universes, the universes that are in play at this point in history. Franklin, sort of the avatar of the Enlightenment, cheeky and contrarian, as opposed to Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived. Very much of a piece with the Renaissance. And it turns out that they actually almost met in 1725. Franklin is in London. He has a commission from the royal governor of Pennsylvania to buy printing equipment. And he has a letter of introduction to Newton from someone in Newton circle, I think it was the physician Pemberton, who edited the second edition of Principia Mathematica. Newton does not want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, so the meeting never occurred. But in my novel, it occurs. I have Franklin and Newton in the same carriage together, but they just talk past each other. Franklin wants to discuss electricity; Newton is preoccupied with counterfeiters at that time and with biblical prophecy. And so, it’s not simply that they are from two different generations, this is the old Newton and the young Franklin, not just two different generations, two different continents, they’re really from two different universes: Franklin of the Enlightenment and Newton of the Renaissance. So I said, well, this is playing into my hands. This is a lot of fun. It’s going to work.

And then other facts, like the Baron de Montesquieu, who ends up defending Jennet at the trial she arranges for herself, really could have ended up in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a young aristocrat taking the grand tour that European aristocrats always took at that time. There was even, according to Franklin, on a witch trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey, at this time, and I simply moved it across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Franklin’s account of the witch trial makes it clear that it never really happened, it’s simply a hoax that he put into the Pennsylvania Gazette. But I decided to take Franklin at his word. So, I guess for me, Ed, the process was like walking through a field with all of these sort of pottery shards lying around, you know, and I would pick them up and examine them and try to fit them to each other and end up with an urn of my own design.

From what I know of Franklin, I suspect he’d like this story.

He comes off very, very well. Yeah.

Did your outlining . . . do you do, like, a detailed outline or just hit some high points and then go for it? What’s that process like?

I do. It’s a kind of freeform outline. You know, I wasn’t really sure how the book was going to end, though. And that’s true of almost all of my novels. I have to kind of feel my way to the climax. But I would never plunge into a project this ambitious, or any sort of a novel, without a rough sense of what the three acts were going to be. You can hear my playwriting heritage coming out here. But that said, I always appreciate a remark that the film director John Huston once made. He said, there comes a time when every film project when you throw away the script and make the movie, by which he means, you know, don’t let the script become your master. You must allow for improvisation, things the actors are going to bring to it, camera setups you never imagined until you were actually on the set, and so forth. And I think for me, at least with prose fiction, there comes a time when you throw away the outline and write the damn novel.

Talking about the three-act structure, you know, it just now occurred to me, but almost every play I see these days is actually two acts. People always talk about the three-act structure, but they’re generally presented as two acts.

It certainly was the classic structure of musicals, right? It was almost like an unwritten but inviolable law that every musical must have two acts with an intermission.

What’s your actual writing process like? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write with parchment, quill pen, and parchment out under a tree where an apple could fall on your head, or . . .?

I guess I wrote my first novel, The Wine of Violence, in longhand, you know, Bic pens on legal pads, and I’ve never been able to compose on a typewriter. I envy writers who could do that. So, I’d always have to . . . sometimes I would type it up myself, and then then I would often have to hire a professional typist to try to cope with all the notes I would put on my first typed draft. Now, of course, I use word processing. I’m working very hard on not being so distracted by the Internet that I stop because I just have to look up a fact, sometimes even because I know I spelled the word wrong, I have to stop to correct the spelling. These are terrible habits. And if any embryonic writers are listening, try to never acquire these bad habits that James Morrow has. I’m slow, methodical. It seems to take forever. In theory, every novel I write should be a year. I remember a remark that Stephen King makes in his quasi-autobiography, his book called Danse Macabre, “Any writer who can’t produce a novel in a year is merely dicking off,” and I agree with Stephen King, but somehow, it always takes two, three, four years. It’s been a lot of time on rewriting, workshopping, showing it to friends and colleagues. And also, I have to say, because I love the medium so much and regard it as such a privilege to work within the medium of the novel, I don’t want to surrender a given book. I want to live inside it.

And perhaps because my premises are so often ridiculous, preposterous, like Towing Jehovah, schlepping the corpse of God to its final resting place in the Arctic on a commission from an angel. Oh, come on. That’s so bold and bold and absurd that I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m living inside and retrofitting a whole lot of facts about life aboard a supertanker onto the story and talking to people who had actually lived on supertankers and then visiting, you know, visiting a lot of death-of-God theology, month in, month out, I started to believe that Towing Jehovah could be the case, but it took a while.

Well, your prose is very rich, and especially in The Last Witchfinder, you’re going for a bit of that archaic diction, I guess. Is that . . . what does your revision process look like? Does that kind of language flow out of you naturally, or do you go back and tweak it a lot to get to that level of . . . erudition, I guess.?

Yeah, Witchfinder was a difficult struggle in particular, because I was trying to . . . I was trying to hit the archaic qualities that we encounter in Restoration drama. And I read a lot of Restoration plays to try to get that voice right, and I read contemporaneous documents. And I have to say it’s the aspect of The Last Witchfinder that I’m least satisfied with. I’m not sure I got it right, but I was determined to try to not settle for modern English, where it becomes the reader’s job to imagine they’re speaking in idioms of the day. I was very influenced by John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is set in exactly the same time zone as The Last Witchfinder, Restoration England and Colonial America. I stole a lot of locutions from him that he had gotten from somewhere else.

But The Last Witchfinder was almost seven years in creation, and much of it was just, yes, endlessly revising the dialect to try to get it to sound right. You know, the language is in transition. They’re sort of shedding Elizabethanisms, sort of the language of Shakespeare, but a lot of that still stayed around. And so, with the novel I did subsequently . . . well, there was a modern novel in between, which was set in Victorian England. That was rather easier to do because we have a pretty good idea from Dickens how the Victorians spoke. But it’s less clear in the case of Witchfinder.

And I guess you still have to also make sure that your language is comprehensible to a modern reader.

That was the challenge, you know, and some of the positive reviews of Witchfinder complimented me on how you adjust to it fairly quickly. It seems very strange, all of this archaic diction. But you kind of figure it out, and you flow with it. I think the book is easier to negotiate than Shakespeare. For example, when you read Shakespeare, it’s a self-conscious experience. You’re constantly making little almost subconscious translations in your mind.

One reason he works better on stage, where you can kind of understand what’s going on from the action, even if you don’t know exactly. Of course, we should make the point that, at least according to the beginning of the book, you didn’t actually write it. It was written by Isaac Newton’s book, which I thought was hilarious, with all these old books that were, you know, they were actually writing these new books, and the authors weren’t really involved.

I guess that’s the other dimension of Witchfinder that owes something to my genre background. There’s a sense in which The Last Witchfinder is taking place in a universe that isn’t quite ours, a universe in which books are alive. They’re sentient creatures who have thoughts and agendas and who can nevertheless fall in love with humans, just as we fall in love with books, right? And they write other books. And what I was up to there and was, I knew the book was going to be, at one level, a celebration of the Enlightenment. I would argue that Harrison is really on to something, the Age of Reason, the scientific understanding of nature came along just when it was needed because the witch universe was a nightmare, a bedlam, as he puts it. At the same time, I said, you know, I don’t want to become an unqualified cheerleader for the Enlightenment because there is a case to be made against reason and the deification of reason, of the sort of church of reason that emerges during the French Revolution. That’s a dead end, too. And the critics of the Enlightenment always point to the French Revolution, that’s always exhibit A in any indictment of that period, which for me was, I guess I am a child of it, I’m a child of Voltaire and Candide, but this conceit of the Principia Mathematica and its somewhat sardonic understanding of the worl, enabled me to make the case against the Enlightenment through the voice of the Principia, which is privilege, which has perspective on all this. I wanted to avoid what I think is a pitfall of a lot of historical fiction, of the characters being acutely aware of how their descendants interpret their actions, which I think it is simply not given to us to know. I had an initial way of getting this perspective on history by having Jeanette’s Aunt Isobel, the woman whose death sends her on her great commission, having Isabelle writing an epic poem that she’s channeled from the ether that recounts, that narrates what’s going to happen in the next generations and the rise of experimental science. And then I said to myself, “Oh, no, that’s a kind of mystical idea, that’s one that’s at odds with the rationalism that I’m defending in this book.” So, I did something that was even more irrational than the epic poem. I did this crazy, this crazy, contemplative narrator. And I’m glad that you’re fond of it.

I guess it is Prin(k)ipia, isn’t it? I tend to give it more of a, like an Italian pronunciation, Prin(ch)ipia.

I think both are acceptable.

What’s the editing process like for you? What do editors come back to you suggesting you do at the editing level?

Well, when it comes to professional editors whose job it is, whose job description is to be an editor, that’s what it says on their door, Editor . . . the days of Maxwell Perkins, I think, are over; the days when somebody could take a manuscript that was kind of raw and rough and say, “Well, here’s how we can, here’s how I can work with this. And I’ll enter into a conversation with the author, and we’ll reimagine this book so that it’s really going to work for the reader.” That’s not what editors are paid to do anymore. They’re expected to acquire ready-to-run books on the whole. And so, I have rarely gotten suggestions that went very deep into the book. They tended . . . you know, the editor will send you a two-page letter with suggestions. And I respect the industry because the author has final cut. Rarely will an editor ever say, “If you don’t go along with this, we’re not going to publish your book”. So, I guess what I’ve said could be boiled down to the notion that you have to be your own editor. And that’s another thing that protracts the composition process for me because I don’t want to . . . sending a book out prematurely, that, I feel, is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You can’t count on an editor seeing its potential. The potential better be there upfront.

We’re getting close to the end of the hour, just a few minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions, and clearly, you have fun with those. And there’s three of them, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why literature of the fantastic in particular?

Well, why do I write? I write to change the world, to make it a better place now.

We’ve been talking about The Last Witchfinder, and I write because I feel so privileged to be part of what I would call the great post-Enlightenment conversation. The situation we find ourselves in, in modernity, where everything can be put on the table and where you can’t say, “Well, because I’ve had a revelation, we don’t need to continue this discussion any further,” that argument doesn’t work anymore. So, I just feel that I’m making my little, my small contribution to the, you know, to the fight against nihilism, really a fight against a kind of theocracy that pretends that mere human beings have ultimate answers. And they don’t. They don’t.

Why does anybody write? I can’t speak to my colleagues. Some of them would say they do it because it’s so much fun and I make money from it.

On the human scale, then, why do humans tell stories?

We are storytelling animals, Homo narratives, I think. But with science fiction in particular, I think you have an opportunity to enrich the vocabulary with which we address the big mysteries of existence, these questions of meaning, and how then shall we live? I mean, if you’re lucky, your book even ends up in the dictionary, a la Frankenstein and 1984. Frankenstein, you know, enlarged our vocabulary, it gave us . . the very name means, or has become synonymous with, the idea that with the power of science must come responsibility. And the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein is not that he was curious, I would argue, or not that he did this borderline blasphemous experiment, but that once he brought the creature into the world, he abandoned it. 1984, of course, the first and last time an author actually owned a year, expanded our vocabulary with terms like Newspeak and Doublethink and Big Brother. We have a way to talk about things that previously we couldn’t talk about. I think of Wells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, you know, a kind of metaphor for this brave new world of genetic engineering and the power we’re developing to manipulate the human genome. Certainly, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale just gave us the concept of the handmaid, this woman who’s under the thumb of a patriarchy. And these are all science fiction titles.

Even in the case of fantasy, it’s important to remember that it also stands against nihilism. The fantasy does not in any way argue the world is up for grabs, the way the nihilist would do and say, well, therefore, my authority is the last word, because we all know reality is up for grabs, there is nothing that’s grounded anymore, which would be sort of nihilism in a nutshell. Tolkien made the point that in a fantasy saga, the trees are real trees, and the grass is real grass, and the rocks are actual rocks. It’s not a fantasy world in the sense of everything being surreal or absurdist. There is an external reality up there, out there, and the very title, Lord of the Rings, I’ve always been fascinated that it points to the villain of the story, to Sauron. Why is that? And I think it’s because the main, the big idea that Tolkien is playing with is the nature of evil, not in some dopey Manichaean sense, but just the, you know, those who think that there is no external reality and therefore they can set the terms, they can set the terms of reality themselves. The line that Gandalf has, “Let folly be our cloak,” it would never occur to Sauron that the Fellowship is going to give up this power. Evil has far less imagination than people of goodwill possess, and I think that’s a very affirming idea, and I think that’s why the book, that novel, has the title it does.

And we’ll. . . what are you working on now? But first, we should mention that you do have something out, a brand-new novella in And the Last Trump Shall Sound with Cat Rambo, whom I’ve had on the show, and Harry Turtledove. So, maybe just briefly, what is that? I have a pretty good idea, but I’ll let you describe it.

And the Last Trump Shall Sound is a set of novellas that speculate on a near-future USA in which Donald Trump won a second term, and this was followed by the election of Pence, who also got a second term, whereupon the states of Oregon, Washington, and California come together under one flag, call themselves the nation of Pacifica, and secede from the Union. That was the premise as it was pitched to me by Shahid Mahmud, the publisher who came up with this idea because he was so distressed to see the way that the nation was being torn apart on the macro scale by the Trump phenomenon and families were being torn apart on the micro-scale. And he just thought, well, maybe science fiction writers can make a valuable contribution to that conversation. I turned him down initially. I said, “Shahid, I can’t work with this. The thought of Trump being re-elected and Pence getting two terms after that is so depressing. Sorry, I’m out of here.”  And so, after I rejected membership in this committee, I remembered something that Shahid had said in pitching it to me, which was that Trump would be dead when the story opened. And I said, “Well, what if Pence is falling under the spell of a spiritual adviser who is not all she seems, and was, in fact, working for Pacifica. What if Pence becomes convinced that he could bring Trump back from the dead? That could be a lot of fun. All right.” So, the very next day, I said, “Shahid, is the slot still open? Can I still join your project?” And he said yes, and I’m really glad.

So, it is still science fiction/fantasy. It’s not just political commentary.

These three novellas, they’re all in the grand tradition of sort-of near future . . . not prophecy. I think the distinction that Orwell makes between a warning and a prophecy is very important. So, I don’t think we’re saying this is going to have to be how it turns out, but we are trying to just diagnose what’s happening, and we all come at it from three very different directions. I should hasten to add that when Trump is actually resurrected in the Washington National Cathedral, what’s going on is not supernatural. It appears that Trump has come back from the dead, but in fact, it’s an audio-animatronics robot.

Like Disneyland.

Exactly.

And what else are you working on?

Well, let’s see. For once, I think I actually have written a novel in a year, as Stephen King prescribes. It’s called Those Who Favor Fire, and it’s a comedy about climate change and a title I’ve always wanted to use. Many years ago, I wrote a nuclear war comedy, or dark comedy, that saw print as This Is the Way the World Ends. I wanted to call it Those Who Favor Fire, but at the time, another work of fiction with that title was coming out, and my editor and I said, well, we want to avoid confusion. So, I finally got to use the line from the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice” as the title of my climate-change novel. And very briefly, it posits that the hollow earth theory is the case, and there’s actually a race of human beings living beneath the surface of our consensus reality. And they’ve got a problem with ice. Their side of the planet has fallen victim to global cooling. So, it’s an allegory, I guess, though I like to think I can avoid the usual pitfalls of allegory where things just map neatly onto each other.

Any indication of when that will be out?

Well, yeah, sure. It’ll be done in a year, and so it will be out next year, except, no, this is James Morrow, and I’m sure I will once again trip myself up with a long rewriting and workshopping process. And it’s not a book that’s been commissioned by a publisher. And, you know, I think I’ll take it to St. Martin’s Press, who did my last novel, to see hardcover print. But there’s no guarantees. It may or may not ever find a publisher. As you may know, I don’t want to spoil your day, Ed, it could even happen to you, a writer at my age can end up in a condition that’s called post-novel, where, you know, where people will take a much harder look at your sales figures and your status, and if you’ve not had a bestseller, it becomes really hard to unload a novel.

Yeah, well, here’s hoping. And those who would like to see how you’re doing, where can they find you online?

I have a website, www.jamesmorrow.net, and I have a Facebook presence of sorts, and I do some twittering, some tweeting.

Okay, I will put those links in, as I always do. And I think that’s about our time, so, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I enjoyed it very much. You’re welcome.

Episode 66: Kacey Ezell

An hour-long conversation with Kacey Ezell, an active-duty USAF instructor helicopter pilot who writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction including Minds of Men and The World Asunder, both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and, with Griffin Barber, the far-future noir thriller Second Chance Angel.

Website
www.kaceyezell.net

Facebook
@KaceyEzell

Instagram
@KaceyEzell

Kacey Ezell’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF instructor pilot with 2500+ hours in the UH-1N Huey and Mi-171 helicopters.  When not teaching young pilots to beat the air into submission, she writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction. Her novels Minds of Men and The World Asunder were both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She’s contributed to multiple Baen anthologies and has twice been selected for inclusion in the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction compilation. In 2018, her story “Family Over Blood” won the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Readers’ Choice Award.

In addition to writing for Baen Books and Blackstone Publishing, Kacey has published several novels and short stories with independent publisher Chris Kennedy Publishing. She is married with two daughters. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kacey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

I should point out that we are speaking across a vast portion of the Earth’s surface, since you’re Tokyo, and I’m in Regina, Saskatchewan. So, yeah, 15 hours difference, I think. So, it’s an early-morning interview for you and a late-afternoon one for me, on two different days. It really is a science-fictional world.

The future is now, friends. It really is.

Exactly. Well, I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you. Your name was suggested to me by one of your fellow Baen authors. So, I’m always glad to get recommendations for people I’ve talked to. We’ve never met in person. So, this will be a good chance to get to know you. So, let’s start at the very beginning, as they say in The Sound of Music. And one interesting thing is that you were born in South Dakota, as you probably actually know where Saskatchewan is. So that’s nice.

I do vaguely. Sort of northish.

Yeah. Just go up past North Dakota, and then it’s us, basically.

Yeah, right.

So, yeah, so, let’s start with—I always say this—we’ll take you back into the mists of time, where you grew up and how you got interested in . . . well, probably you started as a reader. Most of us do. And how that led you to become a writer. And also, this whole bit of being in the Air Force and being a helicopter pilot. That’s interesting, too.

Well, yeah, so. So, I was born in South Dakota, but my parents, when I was about six years old, my parents joined the United States Air Force, as well. And so, we started moving around shortly after like first grade. And one of the very intelligent things that my mother did . . . so, I was kind of an early reader. I started reading just before kindergarten. And once I started reading, I very quickly devoured, you know, any written word I could get my hands on. And during one of our first moves, my mom, I think desperate for me to stop whining that I was bored and didn’t have any friends yet, because we had just moved, to put a copy of Anne McCaffery’s Dragondrums into my hands and said, “Here, this is for kids, read it.” And so, I read it and was immediately entranced. And that was my gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy, if you will, was the Harper Hall trilogy for Dragonriders of Pern.

That would do it.

Yeah, yeah, it really did. And, well, you know, and so here’s me, I’m like, well, so, I read Dragondrums when we lived in Albuquerque. And then very shortly after that, we moved overseas to the Philippines. And during that overseas move, my mom gave me the actual Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the first trilogy that Anne McCaffrey wrote in that series. And for, you know, a kid who was leaving all of her friends behind to go overseas to another country, like, the idea of being a dragonrider and being telepathically paired with, like, your perfect companion who will always love you, who will never leave you, you’ll never have to move away from, was really enticing. And I got it into my head that I really, really wanted to be a dragonrider. And it turns out dragons are in fairly short supply here on mundane Earth. So, my very logical nine-year-old brain decided that I was going to be a pilot instead because that was about as close as I was going to be able to get. So that’s when I, one, both fell in love with science fiction and  fantasy, and two, decided to pursue aviation as a career. It’s all Anne McCaffery’s fault.

Besides Anne McCaffery, were there some other books that were kind of inspiring to you along the way?

Oh, absolutely. You know, like I said, I, I read anything I could get my hands on, so, you know, my mom put The Lord of the Rings, she bought me that trilogy very shortly after that. And, you know, I got really into Tolkien for the, which was my introduction, as I think it is for most people, to the world of high fantasy. And, you know, in an odd way, you know, I pointed this out at a convention a couple of years ago, but there’s a connection there between, like, Tolkienesque fantasy and a lot of the military science fiction that, you know, that I read and write today because, you know, with epic fantasy, you’re talking about these sweeping movements, but you’re also a lot of times talking about armies and, you know, the movements of armies and the tactical decisions of the, you know, of their leadership and stuff. And that’s part of what makes military science fiction so interesting, too. So I think that that kind of, in a way, laid the groundwork for my interest in that, as did my, you know, my own military career, of course. And the experiences that I had growing up as a military brat, particularly living overseas in the Philippines, which was, you know, as I’m sure most people know, the Philippines was a hotly contested area back in the, you know, 1940s timeframe. And so, the opportunity to see a lot of those historical, you know, memorials and some of the battlefield sites and things of that nature was really cool and really interesting to me as a budding history enthusiast and writer.

Well, when did you actually start trying your own hand at writing?

So, my mom, somewhere in her stuff, has a notebook that I wrote, like, some of my first stories in, when I was about six years old. So, I was young. I started writing almost as soon as I started reading.

And did you . . .

Maybe that wasn’t the answer to the question that you wanted as far as, like, professionally, is that what you’re saying?

Well, how did that develop? And as you went along, I mean, OK, you started when you were six, but you wrote longer and longer stuff. And did you share it with other people? I like to ask that question because I did, but not everybody does.

Yeah. No, I did. I did. I shared it. You know, I would show my things to my mom. And my mother was . . . so, my mother’s a huge science fiction fantasy fan. She’s a, you know, she’s another voracious reader, and she’s always been, you know, probably my you know, my number one first reader and fan, obviously, you know, as moms tend to do so. Yeah, I would show me my stories to my mom. But the other thing that I would do and, you know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was kind of a bossy little girl. So when, you know, I would get my friends together, the kids together in the neighborhood or on the playground at school or wherever, a lot of times it was like, “Hey, let’s play pretend. We’re going to pretend that we’re on a spaceship and you’re going to be the captain and I’m going to be the pilot. And you’re going to . . .”  And I would make up these play scenarios that really were just stories, you know, and I was like, “OK, and now the aliens are attacking.” And, you know, it’s, so . . . 

So, I used to do that. My friends never really got into it the same way I did. It was kind of annoying.

No. Well, mine rarely did. Sometimes it worked, you know, and sometimes we would play out, you know, a certain, I don’t know, scenario for a couple of days or whatever. But, yeah, in in a lot of ways, I think that was . . . well, it wasn’t necessarily writing things down, but it was still sort of making up stories and sharing, you know, sharing those stories with other people, trying to involve other people in my stories, so. Yeah. A little bit of an extrovert, so yeah, I tend to want everyone to pay attention to me and my stories.

Well, you went into the Air Force and pilot training and all that. I would have thought that would keep you fairly busy for a while.

Absolutely.

When did you start to try to write professionally?

Well, so yeah. So, for sure, the Air Force kept me very busy. But here’s the thing, is that . . . so, I graduated in Air Force Academy in 2003, sorry, 1999. And right around that time I discovered the magical world of AOL fandom and the Dragonriders of Pern fandom groups that existed there. And so, once again, you know, Anne McCaffery comes to my rescue, right? So, even though I was busy at work and busy, you know, learning to fly and things like that, one of my hobby outlets became interacting with other fans on these groups and actually writing fan fiction.

And in those groups, you know, doing like . . . and when I say writing fan fiction, it wasn’t necessarily, like, writing stories to, you know, be produced in like a fanzine or anything like that. It was mostly, like, role play by email, essentially, where, you know, I would create a dragonrider character, and my friends would create this other one. And we would, our characters would, interact via the email. And it’s super geeky and super nerdy, I mean, don’t get me wrong, but it was an outlet, and it was something that I really enjoyed. And it allowed me to, you know, to kind of play in one of my favorite worlds. And so . . . and actually, you know, during the course of that, I learned a lot about, you know, things like character development and story pacing and, you know, what to do in dialogue, what not to do in dialogue, and how to keep your character’s thoughts confined to their own head and not go head-hopping and things like that, because you can’t act when someone else is controlling the other character in the scene, you know, it’s considered very rude.

So, yeah, super geeky, but it was fun, and it allowed me to continue . . . you know, Toni Weiskopf, the publisher of Baen Books, she has a saying that she says all the time, that writers write because they can’t help it. And I find that to be kind of true in my case, that if I’m not actually, like, writing stories, the stories are going to come out in some way, whether it’s through, you know, playing with my friends or doing online fan fiction or whatever. I’m never not writing, right? It’s kind of like breathing. It’s something that I have to do.

That sounds familiar. And you don’t have to talk to me about being geeky. I actually drew pictures for a Star Trek fanzine when I was in university. So I was . . . 

Oh, that’s awesome, dude.

Doing pictures of Kirk and Spock. I think I did a pretty good Spock. And I’m not . . . that’s all I can remember. I remember doing a pretty good Spock.

That’s awesome. Yeah, I have zero talent when it comes to, like, creating visual fan art. I wish I did, because there’s some gorgeous stuff out there, and yeah, I would love to learn how to draw dragons, but . . . just never got there.

Well, I minored in art, so it actually was a potential direction to go in.

Oh, that’s cool.

 But I . . . I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer, but really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else was kind of a sideline to that.

Dungeons and Dragons should be a major at school.

Like, I think I put more time into that than I did my schoolwork, for sure.

Yeah. There’s a lot that you can learn from tabletop role-playing. I, I support that. Really.

So, when did you start trying to get published professionally?

So, I have a confession to make, but it happened sort of by accident. So, when I was in pilot training back in 2001, I discovered the amazing, mind-bending experience that is DragonCon in Atlanta over Labor Day week.

I’ve been once.

Oh, my gosh. Am I right, though? It’s mind-bending. It’s like walking into . . . it’s like being, you know, being away from home your whole life and then walking through the doors of the hotel and suddenly you’re on your home planet with your people. Everybody’s geeky, everybody’s into the things you’re into, and if they’re not, it’s just because they don’t know about it yet. And yeah, I love it. DragonCon is always the highlight of my year.

But my first one was in 2001, because I’m super-old, and after that, I went back several other times. And one of the . . . so in 2004, I think was the next one that I attended. And in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet a guy by the name of John Ringo, who—I didn’t know this at the time, I hadn’t read any of his work before meeting him—but he was a New York Times bestselling military science fiction author, also published by Bain Books, still is, as a matter of fact. And just talking with him, you know, he’s into MilSciFi, that’s his genre. And so, you know, we were talking about flying and about, you know, fandom and being geeks in the military and things like that. And he struck up a friendship with our group of friends that were, we were all there together, and we maintained an email correspondence. And I saw him at conventions, you know, a couple of years after that.

And then when I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, he emailed me and said, hey, I’m doing this, you know, I got asked to do this project, I’m editing this anthology of military science fiction by military veterans, and I want to include some new voices, along with some of the, you know, the reprints that we’ve done and things like that. And I know you just finished . . . so, the Air Force made me get a degree, a master’s degree, but they didn’t specify what it had to be, and so, I was like, all right, well, I’m going to get an MFA in writing, because screw you guys, I can do what I want. And so, John knew that I just finished that just, you know, because I had been like, hey, guess what, I’m done with my master’s. Right?

And he was like, “I know you just got your writing degree. Do you want to, do you have anything that you’d like to submit?” And I said, “No, but I could. Give me 24 hours.” And so, I wrote a story very quickly. But when you’re deployed, there’s very little to do. You really, like, you go to work, you fly, you go to the gym, you eat, and the rest of it is just kind of hanging-out time, right? And so, I just took that hanging-out time and knocked out this story. And it wasn’t very long. I think it was only, like, 5,000 words or something like that. But it was a cute little story. And I sent it in, and it became part of the anthology, you know, they accepted it for the anthology. And so, that was my first publication.

And then after that, Jim Minz, a couple of years later, once I was back in the States and again back at DragonCon, Jim Minz, you know, who also had, he was one of the editors on the product as well, came up to me and he was like, “So, when are you going have a novel for me? I’ve been waiting for it for a couple of years. And I was like, “Oh, well, let me get on that.” So, that was really the start of my career. I started doing, writing short stories for anthologies, again, mostly connected with John Ringo. He kind of like pulled me . . . and then I started, you know, branching out from there.

Before we go on to what you started writing at that point, I’m interested in the MFA because I’ve talked to other authors who have had, you know, that sort of formal creative writing training. And I get mixed reviews on how helpful it actually was. Was it helpful in your case? Did you find it very worthwhile?

So, aspects of it were helpful. Not necessarily from the standpoint of professional connections or anything like that, but like I said, the Air Force was going to make me get a master’s degree, and they were going to pay for it, and they didn’t really care what it was in. It was just kind of, almost like a box to be checked. So, I decided to do something, you know, knowing myself the way that I do, I really only want to spend energy and time on things that are interesting to me. And I knew that I wouldn’t, you know, if I tried to get, like, an aviation management degree, there would be aspects of it that were interesting, but there would be other aspects of it that would be deadly dull and that I would probably procrastinate and, you know, potentially not do very well. So instead, I chose to pursue the MFA in creative writing.

Where did you get that?

From National University. It’s a primarily online university that caters to a lot of military folks. I think they’re based out of San Diego. So not a real big, well-known name in academia or anything like that. But the program itself I really enjoyed. I found it to be . . . you know, because I think what I was trying to get out of it was one, just the piece of paper that said I had a master’s degree that the Air Force required, but two, I was just trying to have an enjoyable experience and kind of expand my toolbox, if you will. My concentration was in poetry, not in short fiction or . . . I mean, I guess you could kind of do a long fiction concentration . . . but I chose poetry, in part because I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve written it almost as long as I’ve written stories. And I find that a skillful  . . . that a lot of the tips and techniques and, you know . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . just, the things that you do that make poetry poetry, can really inform your prose writing and really help to make it beautiful. So that’s why . . . well, and also poems are shorter. So again, less—typically. Not always. Sometimes they’re super long—but the graduation requirements were definitely shorter. Rather than writing a novel, I only had to write a book of 50 poems for me to complete my program. So that was a pretty big draw, too. You know, when you’re active-duty military and at the time a single mom, I was trying to balance out my requirements, and that was my strategic decision.

But I did. I loved it. Not because it necessarily got me anywhere in the publishing business, but for my own personal development. It taught me how to critique. It taught me how to take critique. And that’s probably the most immediately valuable lessons that I learned from that program, is how to how to give a constructive critique that is actually useful to the other individual and how to receive critique and to tell what’s constructive and what’s just, “Oh, I loved it. It’s great. You should write more,” you know, stuff like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of comments. We love those kinds of comments, but they don’t necessarily help develop you as a writer.

Yeah, it’s like . . . my mom didn’t read my stuff, but my dad would, and he’d say it was great and, OK, but I need more than that to make it better in the future.

Right. Right.

Your poetry that you were writing, did it have any fantastical element to it, or was it more straightforward?

Some did, yeah, some did. So, what I what I mostly wrote for the program was actually aviation-related because I was the only pilot in my group that was going through the program at the time and so, you know, write what you know, right? But also, not only write what you know but write about what makes you different and what makes you unique. And that’s sort of, you know, find that niche, that brand. And so, I ended up writing a lot of poetry about, I’m just thinking of my chapbook collection now, you know, a lot of it has to do with flying and, you know, being in the air force and, you know, what it’s like to fly in the daytime and nighttime and stuff like that.

So, this has nothing to do with writing a book. What drew you to helicopters as opposed to, say, fixed-wing?

They were more fun.

They’re more fun?

They seemed more fun. Yeah, no, before I went to pilot training, when I was a what’s called a casual lieutenant, I had already graduated from the Air Force Academy and been commissioned, but I was awaiting my pilot-training start date. I had the opportunity to ride on an MH-53 helicopter. It’s what the Air Force used to use for special operations. They’ve since retired that airframe. And I remember sitting on the back . . . so, it had, like, a ramp on the back, and it had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on that ramp. And we were out flying over a range. And I didn’t actually get to shoot that day, which made me very sad. But I did get to sit on the ramp next to the gunner. You know, he was sitting on one side of the weapon, and I was sitting on the other side and, you know, kicking my feet off the back of the ramp. While we’re flying 50 feet above the ground and it was pretty cool. I was like, yeah, this is a lot of fun. I want to do this.

Was it at least some of the feeling of flying on a dragon, do you think?

A USAF UH-1N Huey.

Oh, yeah, maybe. Maybe although, yeah, not necessarily that particular experience because we were going backward, you know, because I was sitting out the back. But sometimes, yeah, sometimes it has. You know, when you can feel . . . the thing about flying helicopters versus flying fixed-wing is that, you know, flying fixed-wing is about 50 percent art, 50 percent science, right? But flying helicopters is more like 70/30 art versus science. And the reason is because you do so much more of it, at least my helicopter. Now, I fly a UH-1 Huey, which, you know, was the quintessential Vietnam era helicopter, if that tells you anything. Every tail number that I fly was made in 1969. So, they are old birds, and we’re not talking cutting-edge technology in any sense of the word. And so, because of that, in part because of that, so much more, so much of what we do is, it’s our seat-of-the-pants muscle memory, like, you have to, it has to feel right.

And that, you know, when we’re teaching young aviators, half of what we’re teaching is just getting them to practice the maneuvers to the point where they can feel what feels right versus what feels wrong. And so, I think that when, you know, occasionally when you do a particular maneuver, and it feels just right, I think that it must be very similar to what that would feel like, you know, on the back of your own dragon to whom you were telepathically linked.

I’ve been sitting here trying to remember . . . I had characters in a helicopter in a book, two or three books ago in my current series. And so, I was researching helicopters because I’m not exactly an expert on the subject. And I went down a rabbit hole where I was reading helicopter jokes for about half an hour.

There’s a ton of them.

And unfortunately, I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. I was going to try one on you, but . . .

Yeah, well, beating the air, we don’t fly, we beat the air into submission. That’s a very common one. Or, we don’t fly, we’re so ugly the Earth repels us.

Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.

Oh, yeah. No, it’s there’s a, yeah, there’s a ton of helicopter jokes. And what’s so funny is that that, you know, like a lot of professions that, you know, have jokes about us, we tend to embrace those things. And helicopter aircrews as a whole, we have a reputation for being a little bit crazy. And what’s very interesting about that is that there’s some science to actually back that up. If you put our personality traits, and by our I mean society’s personality traits on a bell curve, helicopter aircrews are highly skewed to one end when it comes to traits of, like aggressiveness and, you know, adrenaline junkieness, whatever, whatever the proper term for that is. So, yeah, so there’s some data to back up the fact that we’re all crazy., Or you could just meet one of us and know that. 

Well, taking us back to the writing side of things . . .

Sure.

So, Jim Minz had suggested a novel to you, but your . . . was your first novel Minds of Man? Is that then your first novel? But that’s not a Baen book.

Yeah, no, well, no, so . . . not for lack of trying. It wasn’t. So my first . . . my first actual novel contract was with Baen, and it was for Gunpowder and Embers, which was a collaboration that I did with John Ringo and Christopher L. Smith. And that just came out last January. And while we were working on Gunpowder, and it was . . . we’d finished up the first draft, and it was in edits and development. I had this other idea to write a story about World War II aviation, but with female psychics on board.

As one does.

Right. Well, because so what got me thinking about it was, you know, I was thinking about how aircrew are kind of a different, you know . . . like a lot of subcultures, I’ll say, you know, we end up being kind of a different breed and having our own discreet ways of communicating with one another. And I kind of got to thinking about that. And then the other thing that happened was that we had an air show and I had the opportunity to see the inside of a B17 cockpit. And I’m used to flying with a relatively primitive aircraft. But I got nothing on those guys, man. I have no idea how they even navigated. I mean, it’s no wonder that they had an entire crew member whose sole job was to do navigation, because their navigation, you know, their tools that they had to use were so primitive, and to think that they took hundred-ship formations of this incredibly primitive aircraft, not just into the weather, but into the weather, out the other side, and then flew them in combat. It was, like, mind-boggling. I mean, just the amount of courage of those men who did that was, you know, it was flabbergasting when it dawned on me the magnitude of the task that they had accomplished and done so over and over and over again. And, you know, their loss rates were just staggering.

And so, I started thinking about that. And the reason I came up with the psychics was that one of the things that that could potentially compensate for, you know, in a way that we have compensated with technology, would be, you know, the instantaneous communication that a telepathic connection might provide, because . . . So, anyway, I got to thinking about that, and I decided to write a story, and it became Minds of Men. And did actually send it to Toni at Baen. And she sent it back saying, you know, “This is not for us.” It’s not for, you know, “It’s not the kind of thing that I think our readership would snap up.” However, she sent me some very, very valuable critique. And I will be forever grateful to her for that time and attention that she took to actually provide that for me instead of just saying, no thanks. And so, I took it and applied the critique. And I had recently been approached by Chris Kennedy of Chris Kennedy Publishing to do a novel in his and Mark Wandrey’s military science fiction shared world called The Four Horsemen Universe. And so, I decided to just ring him up, I guess, and say, “Hey, you know, would you be interested in looking at this?” He said, “Yeah, send it on over.” And the thing about Chris is that he’s an aviator, too, right? So, I think I kind of spoke to my audience there with that one and but yeah, he loved it. And so, I published it under Chris Kennedy’s Theogony imprint and, yeah, that was kind of the start of the Psyche of War series.

Well, we’ll take a closer look at that one as an example of your creative process. I did want to mention that I also had an opportunity to tour the inside of a B17 when it came to our local airport a couple of years ago. And my experience there, which I never thought I would have, was that this horrendous thunderstorm blew in, and we were all kind of stuck out there on the tarmac. And I’m standing under the wing of an all-aluminum airplane while lightning is cracking around and the rain’s pouring down. And I’m thinking, “I’m not sure this is the best place we could be at this moment, but . . .I have video of it somewhere. My daughter was with me, and she was quite concerned. And I wasn’t terribly happy myself.

Oh, poor girl, yeah.

But the other thing I want to mention that navigation was that my wife’s grandfather, my grandfather in law, was a First World War navigator on a Handley Page bomber. These things had an 80-foot wingspan. They were enormous. But you talk about your primitive navigation, it was mostly . . . we actually have, we actually have his notebook from when he was at navigation school, and he was like one of the top-ranking students when he was in the navigation school in the Royal Air Force. But a lot of it went down to was, “Do you recognize that church steeple over there on the horizon?”

Right.

’Cause that’s the target, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, that was interesting.

Yeah. So, by the time World War Two had rolled around, they had very, very basic radio navigation available. But what they would do is, they would call on the radio to a station and get a ping and then the navigator would plot the information that they got from that ping and then just triangulate their position from there. And then, they used a lot of dead reckoning, which, you know, that’s just following, you know, flying this direction over the map for a given period of time should put us here if we maintain a constant speed. And yeah, it was just it was insane. I’ll take my GPS, thank you very much.

I always found the word “dead” in dead reckoning to be a little alarming.

It’s slightly ominous for sure, especially when we’re talking about dead reckoning into combat. Right.

So, you sort of talked about where the idea for Minds of Men came from, and you gave a hint of it. But do you want to give a bit more of a synopsis of it and then we’ll talk about it?

Yeah, so the synopsis of Minds of Men is, essentially, it’s 1943 and 8th Air Force bombers are flying out of England and they’re, you know, they’re just getting their lunch eaten by the Luftwaffe fighters because they didn’t have a long-range fighter escort that had the capability to take them all the way to their target and back. So, they were particularly vulnerable during, you know, during part of their sortie. And their loss rates were just incredible and staggering, if you actually go and read those numbers and think about, you know, how many men that represents. And in this, like I said, in this world, some women—and they’re all women because I’m sorry, I’m sexist—but some women have the ability to create psychic connections with other people and communicate with them telepathically. And one of these Air Force generals knows about it because his wife is one of these women. So they end up, you know, doing a super-secret recruiting drive, essentially, and come up with 20 women powerful enough to do this job, who end up flying with these bomber crews out of England, helping them to maintain closer formation, better formation integrity, helping them to respond quicker to, you know, threats and things like that. And that ups their success rate, but at what kind of cost, right? Because now, these women are not only experiencing the hell of warfare for themselves, but they’re experiencing it tenfold because they’re experiencing it through the minds of each of their crew members, too. And then, of course, as is every aircrew member’s nightmare, you know, at some point the main character gets shot down. And so now, she’s stuck in occupied Europe, you know, with her surviving crew, trying to find her surviving crew members from the crash. And they’re having to escape and evade their way through occupied Europe, all while being chased by . . . because it turns out that the Germans have psychics, too. So, there’s a team of German Fallschirmjäger and a psychic woman who is pursuing them.

The latter half of the book was actually a lot of fun to write. Well, the whole thing was pretty fun to write, but I really enjoyed doing the research for the latter half of the book because I really got to dig into some of the stories about resistance-led escape lines that ran throughout Europe in the Second World War. And these were organizations that would help, not just allied airmen, but they actually started, really, helping to repatriate soldiers stranded by the evacuation of Europe, you know, ones who couldn’t get out at Dunkirk, essentially. At least, that’s when one of the Belgian lines that I researched started. And they would smuggle these, you know, these allied airmen and soldiers through the Nazi lines and, you know, take them on trains and try to get them out, either get them out to sea to get picked up by, usually, Royal Navy destroyers, or over the Pyrenees into ostensibly neutral Spain and get them picked up at the British embassy there. So really fascinating stuff and it was a lot of fun to right, you know, to kind of combine those stories and put it in my own.

Well, so, what . . . that kind of brings you out to the next question. Well, first of all, you said, you know, as a helicopter pilot, you’re kind of a seat of the pants flyer. Are you also a seat of the pants writer, or are you a detailed outliner?

So, that aspect of my style is sort of evolving, honestly. And I do a lot of collaboration, and I find that when working with another author, a detailed outline is actually really helpful because it allows you to say, “OK, well, you know, I’m going to go away, and I’m going to work on this part of the outline. I’m going to bring it back. And here it is.” And then, you know, you can just get more done that way if you agree ahead of time where you’re going with the story. So, you don’t have surprises. For myself, I would say that I’m an outliner, but I outline in phases. I don’t do the whole thing right up front, all right, like the outline of the first act and then I’ll write the first act and kind of see how it’s going, and then I’ll figure out, “OK, where am I going to go in the second act?” And so, I kind of do it in chunks, if that makes sense.

And once you have the outline, what is your actual writing process. Do you write, you know, with a quill pen under a tree or . . .

No, I use my laptop.

Well, being a poet, you ever know.

Right? Yeah. No, I, I use my laptop. I actually, I enjoy Scrivner. It’s a program . . .

Yeah. I have it, and haven’t climbed the learning curve yet to use it, but I have it.

It is steep, the learning curve is steep. I got it. And I went ahead and said, “OK, you know, I paid for this program, I’m going to learn how to use it.” And I dedicated two days and just went through the tutorials. And it took that long, but I’m glad that I did it because, you know, it walked me through all of the functionality. And I’ve since forgotten a lot of it because I don’t, you know, it’s a very, very capable program. And I don’t use, you know, I probably only use about two-thirds of what it’s actually able to do. But, yeah, I like it a lot. I like the flexibility that it gives me to move things around and kind of see, “OK, this is where this is,” and, you know, link characters to different things and stuff. So. Yeah. I use Scrivener.

Do you write sequentially.

Yeah, most of the time I have to. When I don’t, it’s usually because I’m dead stuck, and I’ve just, I’ve got to skip a part and go on and come back and fill it in. But for the most part, I write sequentially. The challenge for me is always, like I think it is for many people, you know, who have day jobs and families and stuff, is always finding that balance to, you know, time to dedicate to sit down and do the writing. And not just the time, but the energy, you know, because I could for sure sit down every night at 10:00 and write for an hour, but by that time, a lot of times I’m so exhausted that, you know, what would be the point, right? I don’t know that I’d get anything useful out of it.

Yeah, it does take energy to write. I’m not . . . you know, people think you just sit there and type, but it actually takes a lot of energy to write.

Right. Right. And it’s the mental energy, which is the kind that, like, just gets sucked out of you if you have a boring day at work or whatever. So, for me, what I’ve found is that I have to have a very low but consistent daily word-count goal. And I have to keep that habit up of writing. So, mine, it’s . . . I don’t even know if it’s the goal, but my minimum is that every day, no matter how exhausted I am, I need to sit down and write 100 words, just 100 words. And if I get to 100 words, and I’m exhausted, and I want to quit, I’ll allow myself to quit and just say, “OK, this was a lower day.” But just like with . . . and I actually heard of this technique in regards to exercise, actually, where people are like, “Oh, I don’t really want to go to exercise, but let me, you know, let me get on the bike for ten minutes. And after ten minutes, if I want to quit, I let myself quit.” But most of the time, you know, by the time you’re 10 minutes in or, in the case of writing, by the time you’re a hundred words in, you know, there’s more going on in your head, and there’s more that’s ready to come out. And so, you end up getting a little bit more than that, at least.

So, my productivity has definitely fallen off this year. Like, you know, I think a lot of us who write, that’s been the case. At least, you know, among people that I’ve talked to, that’s been the case. And using this technique of forgiving myself and just being like, all right, you know, I’m going to keep, as long as I’m moving forward, forward progress is forward progress. We’re not going to harp on how much forward progress we’re getting. It’s been working for me.

Once you have a draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I do the thing that most people say you shouldn’t do, and I edit as I go, but I do that because I, I can’t . . . it just bothers me. It bothers me to not do it. So, I do, I edit as I go. So, once I have a draft, it’s usually fairly clean. I will read through it one more time out loud because I find that that helps me catch typos, and more importantly, it helps me catch repeated words that I, you know, use too often.

Yeah, reading out loud is a great way to find things. Better to find it while you’re writing it than when you’re doing a public reading later, which is when I usually find those things. Oh, I wish I’d change that before it went into print.

That’s not what I said. Yeah. And that was another tip from Toni Weiskopf from Baen Books. So, it was read it out loud and listen to, you know, listen to how it flows and how it sounds and stuff. So, I will I’ll read through the draft out loud, start to finish, and make any changes that I, you know, that I find needs making there. And then from there, I usually send it off to the editor and let the editor, you know, take a look.

So, you don’t have any beta readers or anything like that?

Well, no, that’s not true, I do. It depends on the project, right? So . . . and again, a lot of times, you know, other than the Psyche of War series, a lot of my novels have been collaborations. So, you know, a lot of times I will bounce the ideas or . . . not the ideas, but I’ll go through it, and then my co-author will go through it, is what I’m trying to say. And sometimes, we have beta readers. But sometimes, you know, like I said, it just goes straight to the editor. A lot of times lately, we’ve been working very under, very, you know, right up to the deadlines. So, not the best practice, but . . . 

But it’s an extremely common one. Let me tell you.

For Gunpowder, we had beta readers, for Second Chance Angel, we had beta readers. So, I had some beta readers for Minds of Men. I didn’t for World Asunder because I was late on it. So, it was like, all right, get it done, make sure it’s clean, send it to the editor.

What kind of editorial feedback do you get back typically?

Oh, again, you know, it varies. For Second Chance Angel, Griffin and I had the wonderful experience of working with . . . oh, I’m going to not remember her last name . . . our editor, Betsy. She’s a fantastic editor who’s been in the business for years and years. And she worked with us on a developmental level. And so, with her, you know, we sent her the draft, and she came back, and it was it was very much a conversation kind of . . . modality, I guess. You know, where it was like, all right, so, you know, “I have questions about this. What if you did this to this part?” or “What would you think about this?” or “This part threw me out, you know, of the story.” “How can you make this . . . how can you tie this back in?” And she had some . . . you know, one of the major, one of the best suggestions she gave us was, you know, Second Chance Angel is a post-war, post-galactic-war story. And Betsy, she came back, and she said, “Look, I think that what you really need to do is make a timeline of the war so that you have it very clear on how all of these things, you know, kind of came to be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the text, but you guys need to know it,” and, you know, things like that. On the developmental level, some of my work, when I get edits back, it’s really just, like, copyedit-level stuff. And I find that, I get that. So, with my Psyche of War series, because it’s alternate history, I don’t have to do a lot of worldbuilding because it’s our world, there’s just psychics in it, right? So, I find that the more—maybe I’m just weak in worldbuilding—the more worldbuilding I have to do, the more, like, developmental-edit type feedback I get, whereas when there’s not that much worldbuilding to do, it’s really more on the copyeditor level, if that makes sense. And I’m happy to have it both.

You’re talking a little bit about Second Chance Angel, and that’s the other one we want to mention. I’m actually talking to your co-author, Griffin . . .

Yes.

. . . actually, this week, as we’re speaking, in just a few days, I’ll be talking to him, too. So, maybe . . .

He’s a riot. You’re going to have a good time.

Maybe a quick synopsis of that one, and then we’ll talk about it a little bit.

OK, so, Second Chance Angel is a sci-fi noir thriller that Griffin Barber and I co-wrote together, and it is the story, like I said, it’s a story set in the aftermath of a great galactic war, where humans essentially joined this war on the side of this alien race, kind of mysterious alien race, that we call the Mentors. And one of ways that the Mentors enticed humanity to come into the war on their side was by offering these cybernetic upgrades that require artificial intelligence to run the upgrades or to maintain the modifications. And so, these . . .  they have these AIs that were written as personal AIs that inhabit the body with the person. And it should kind of just be transparent. But one of our characters is actually one of these AIs that we call angels. And so Ralston Muck is a down-on-his-uck veteran bouncer who’s had his angel removed . . .

That’s a great name, by the way, Ralston Muck.

Yeah, that was Griffin’s idea. It’s very noir.

Very.

So, he finds himself, you know, mixed up in, and went, you know, when a singer at the club that he works at disappears and he finds himself in a position of having to go look for her and having to work with her personal AI to go find her. You know, they kind of slip into, uncover some seedy underworld stuff, as you know, as noir stories do. And, yeah, so that’s sort of the synopsis of the book is that they’re trying to find Siren . . .

Oddly enough, I just watched Chinatown last night. You know, it’s only been out for, what, 50 years and I’ve never watched it, so . . .

Well, it’s such a great movie. Yeah, it’s . . . I love the noir subgenre and Second Chance Angel for both Griffin and I is sort of our love letter, too, to the noir subgenre. A couple of years back, when I really got into it, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and I just I fell in love with the way that that guy could turn a phrase, you know, and the way that he would create these characters and make them, you know, just real people, just  by the words that they would say and the comparisons that they would draw, you know. And so, yeah, I, I love it. I love the aesthetics of it. And so does Griffin. And so, we decided to write a book and make it noir.

And how did you do that? Did you write, like, one chapter, alternating chapters, or exactly how did that work?

Kind of, yeah. So, in the book, we have essentially three points of view represented. So, one of the noir tropes is that, you know, you have this first-person point of view narration, which has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you can really do some cool, like, unreliable-narrator type stuff that way, right? And we did do some of that. But one of the disadvantages is that it’s by necessity a very tight POV. You know, there’s only so much that you can do. So, what we did was, we had both Angel and Muck in first person POV, and I essentially wrote Angel’s Point of View, and Griffin wrote Muck. And there was some overlap. And sometimes where we, you know, did one or the other. But for the most part, that’s how it came about. And then, kind of to address that that disadvantage, you know, we realized that there was another dimension to the story that we needed to tell. And so, we did that through some of the additional AIs that are not necessarily personal augmentation eyes like Angel, but, like, the AI that is running the admin for the space station and the AI that is the law enforcement officer AI. We rolled them in and used them to tell part of the story, too, from a third-person point-of-view perspective.

Well, it sounds quite fascinating.

Yeah, it was fun. It was . . . it kind of came about organically, you know, we didn’t sit down and say, “OK, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do this.” It was just sort of like, “Well, here, let me see. Well, I think this is how Angel would react,” and was like, “Oh, OK, well, this is what Mike would do next and just sort of went from there.”

Well, getting close to the end of the time here. So, time to turn my attention to the big philosophical question, which is . . .

Dum dum dum.

Yeah, exactly. Why, why? Why do this? Why write? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories, and why specifically stories of science fiction and fantasy?

Oh, OK, well, those are a lot of questions.

I like to pretend it’s just one, but it’s actually more than one.

Yeah, really. So, the reason that I write? I write like I breathe, right? You know, I kind of alluded to this earlier when I was talking about being a little kid, and I’ve never not made up stories. I don’t know how to process life without making up stories. And I think that that’s on some level true for us as a human race. We are in so many ways defined by our stories, the stories that we tell, the stories that we remember, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget. I think that stories are an essential part of the human experience. And because, you know, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I can tell you a story that is similar to something that you’ve experienced and that then becomes a point of connection between us. And I think that that’s something that was very important for us as humans to do, is to connect with one another, you know. So, I think that we write for all of those reasons, you know, because that’s part of what makes us who we are.

Why stories of the fantastic?

Because that also makes this part of who we are. Because we, you know, we have the amazing ability to not just talk about what is but what could be, and to get excited about what could be and to inspire ourselves and each other and. And so, I think that, you know, there’s great joy to be had there, in telling stories of the fantastic, whether it be in science fiction or in fantasy or even in, you know, even in the darker stuff, like the horror and the noir and . . .you know, they’re two very different things, but they’re all ways of processing this experience, right, so . . . you know, it’s like dark humor, for example. I mean, I’ve been in the military for 20 years, and I have a very dark sense of humor, and most of my friends have a very dark sense of humor. And, you know, the same is true of first responders who work where they see terrible things all the time, police officers who have to deal with domestic violence and social workers who have to go into these situations and stuff. One of the major coping mechanisms for all of this is dark humor, is the ability to laugh so that you don’t cry.

And I think that, you know, there’s so much out there that frightens us as humans, even, you know, even, you want to talk even on an evolutionary level, like, we’re not the biggest, baddest animal out there. We don’t have super-sharp teeth or super-sharp claws we can’t see in the dark. But what we do have is our mind and our imagination. And we have this, like I said, this ability to tell stories and this ability to inspire each other and this ability to think beyond what is, to see what could be. And that is our great evolutionary advantage. And so, you know, even taking something that’s dark and turning it into our own story, you know, telling a story about it, makes it a little bit more accessible, and it gives us the ability to process the emotions that come with fear a little bit better, in fact. I don’t know if any of that made sense.

It made sense to me.

OK, good. I’m glad.

What are you working on now?

So, Griffin and I are . . . we have started the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which . . . Second Chance Angel releases, if you don’t mind me saying this, Angel releases on September 8, which is today for me while we’re recording this, I’m not sure when this will go up, but here in Japan, it’s already release day. So, yeah, happy release day!

It will have been out for some time before this goes live.

Good. You guys can just be part of my retroactive celebration! So, we’ve started the sequel, which is called The Third Sin, and we’re about three chapters into that. I’m also working on the third book in my Psyche of War series, which is a story set in the Vietnam era. And I’m working on a sequel to Gunpowder and Embers, started outlining that, and a couple of short stories and stuff. So, I’ve got a lot of projects.

And where can people find you online? I mentioned the website off the top. Oh, I should say that’s . . . better spell that.

Yeah. So, my website kaceyezell.net. That’s sort of the hub for where you can find me. You can go there and find lists of all my books, all my social media links, and join my mailing list, actually. And if you do that, you get, like, two free stories. So, there’s that as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. But also, I’m available on Instagram at KaceyEzell and then Facebook at KaceyEzell, too. So that’s kind of usually where I’m most interactive on social media is Instagram and Facebook.

OK, great. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I did! Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun to talk to you.

Episode 65: Cat Rambo

A 45-minute chat with Cat Rambo, Nebula Award-winning author of more than 200 published short stories and several novels, editor, writing teacher, and past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, about her creative process.

Website
www.catrambo.com

Twitter
@catrambo

Facebook
@catrambo

Cat Rambo’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Cat Rambo’s more than 200 published short stories have appeared in Asimov’sWeird TalesClarkesworldStrange Horizons, and many others, and consistently garner mentions and appearances in year’s-best-of anthologies. Cat’s collectionEyes Like Smoke and Coal and Moonlight, was an Endeavor Award finalist in 2010 and followed their collaboration with Jeff Vandermeer, The Surgeon’s Tale & Other Stories. Their most recent collection is Neither Here Nor There, which follows Near + Far, containing Nebula-nominated “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain.” Their most recent novel is Hearts of Tabat from Wordfire Press, Book Two of the Tabat Quartet. They have edited anthologies, including the political-SF anthology If This Goes On, as well as the online, award-winning, critically acclaimed Fantasy Magazine. The work there earned a nomination for World Fantasy Award in 2012.

Cat runs the decade-old online writing school the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, a highly successful series of online classes featuring some of the best fantasy and science fiction writers in the business, and has also taught for Bellevue College, Johns Hopkins, Towson State University, Clarion West, the King County Library System, Blizzard, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Cascade Writers, and countless convention workshops. And although no longer actively involved with the game, Cat is one of the minds behind Armageddon MUD, the oldest roleplay-intensive MUD (interactive text-based game) on the Internet. They continue to do some game writing, as well as technology, journalism, and book reviews.

A long-time volunteer with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Cat served as its vice-president from 2014 to 2015 and its president for two terms, from 2015 to 2019, and continues to volunteer with the organization.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

You may not remember…we did meet, actually, at the SFWA table in San Jose, I think. I was volunteering, and you happened to come by.

Oh, nice.

Like I said, you wouldn’t remember, but I remember you.

Conventions become a giddy world for you when you’re SFWA president, unfortunately.

I’m sure. So, we’ll start, as I always start by taking the guest, you in this case, back into the mists of time, which…as I keep saying, especially when I’m talking to young authors, the mists of time is deeper for some of us than for others. But, how did you get…well, first of all, where did you grow up and all that kind of stuff? And how did you begin to become interested in science fiction and fantasy and in the writing of it particularly?

Well, I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which is northern Indiana, and I was a child who read ravenously and early on discovered that I loved fantasy and science fiction. My babysitter was reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit aloud to me, and I began sneaking chapters on weekends when she wasn’t there. And at the same time, it was always assumed that I was going to write because I loved to read so much and because my grandmother wrote young adult novels, under her initials because they were sports novels. So, she was the author of such classics as Football Flash, Basketball Bones, and my favorite Martha Norton, Operation Fitness USA.

I’ll have to look those up. So, when did you start writing? I.

I started…when I was, I want to see nine or ten, I had a poem published. My grandmother had actually given me a book on writing, and I started writing poetry and sent something off to a contest. So, I was writing from nine or ten. After a fashion. Some of them were, I think, more story-shaped than others.

I always like to say that—because it’s true–that my first published work was in Cat Fancy Magazine when I was about 12 years old or something like that. They had something called Young Authors Open, and you could send stuff in. And it was a terrible pun about…they were looking for a replacement for Santa Claus, and they found this guy that looked like he’d be perfect, but the previous Santa observed him all year, and when he saw what his garden was like, he realized he could never be Santa because he wouldn’t hoe, hoe, hoe.

Oh, that’s cute. That’s awesome, though.

So, I think I got like fifteen dollars or something. So, my first professional sale.

I remember that magazine? So, yeah. Oh, that’s too funny.

When you started writing, did you…you had the poem, but were you writing other stuff, and were you sharing with other people? I always ask that because I shared my writing and with my classmates and so forth, and that’s how I found out I could tell stories.

I was. I had a story, a serial story that I was writing instead of actually practicing in typing class, because my parents and the parents of four of my friends enrolled us in summer school in typing class because they thought it would be good for us. And my act of rebellion was to actually write a long serial space opera that the other girls loved. And so, I did. I learned that people enjoyed my stories and kept writing them after that.

Did you write longer and…I guess, when did you start trying to get your stories published? I guess that’s the next step.

I had a few stories published in high school, usually connected to gaming, like, in gaming magazines. I had a couple of game reviews and book reviews and a terrible, terrible short story. So that, yeah, in high school pretty much.

Did you study writing formally at some point?

I did. I was one of those people who took a while to go through college, and so I dropped out and worked in a bookstore for a long time and then came back and actually dropped out a second time, just to make sure I was totally confused. But then, after I came back to college, I ended up going off to get a master’s in writing at Johns Hopkins, where I studied with John Barth and enjoyed myself very much.

I often ask people who did do formal writing training if it was helpful. And it sounds like in your case, it was.

Well, I think it was. But I also want to say that it wasn’t until I came to fantasy and science fiction that I got a lot of the nuts-and-bolts stuff. I felt like Hopkins was a lot of theory, which certainly is very useful, but it wasn’t until I got to Clarion West that we started talking about kind of, like, here’s the advantages of, say, first-person versus third-person. The more crafty sort of stuff.

And when the longer there, did you start making sales?

I…let’s see, I started selling stuff when I was in grad school, to small literary magazines, which meant I was making like five dollars or ten dollars a sale. And then I got kind of sidetracked and went into computers. And it wasn’t until 2005 that I sort of came back and started sending stuff out again, began sort of taking it seriously. And so, after about 2005, I started making some decent sales.

Yeah, well, I was interested in the writing, working in computers. My first books that I wrote were all these sort of basic computer manuals. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95.

Then you will appreciate, that’s what I did, I was a documentation manager, and we were documenting VisualBasic.net.

And has any of that fed into your writing in any other way, the working on that side of things, has that fed into your stories at all?

Well, I tend to be more open to new technology and interested, particularly in new computer stuff, I think, than some other writers. One of the things I found, paradoxically, about science fiction writers is that many of them seem to sort of freeze at a particular technological level. And apparently, I haven’t encountered the one I’m going to freeze at yet.

When did you move on to the longer work, your novels?

I went to Clarion West, which is a local fantasy and science fiction workshop in 2005, and started writing a book immediately out of that, but it didn’t get published until eight years later. It went through, like, thirteen drafts and various convulsions. One of the jokes in my family is that I could never leave my husband because he’d read thirteen drafts. Which I’m not sure…we don’t need to tell him this, I’m not sure I would have done for him. I mean, can you imagine reading thirteen drafts of the same book? Holy crap.

I get tired of reading my own books, much less somebody else’s.

Oh, God.

Do you think that you’re…I mean, people do seem to specialize in one thing or another. You’ve clearly written more short fiction than long fiction. Do you think you’re more naturally a short-story writer than a longer fiction writer? Or do you even think that’s true, that people tend to be one or the other?

Well, I think they’re very different forms, and I think that they play to different strengths. One of the things I have to tell my students often is that a novel is not just sort of a bunch of short stories clumped together. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I think I’m good at both of them. I think I’m better at short stories. But I don’t want anybody to go, “Oh, shitty at novels. Why should I check them out?” Because my novels rock. Go buy them immediately.

Yeah, I was not suggesting that people not go out and…

No, but a good short story is, just can be, so pleasurable and so interesting and, at the same time not be the huge investment of time that a novel is, right? Depending on how fast you read, a novel can be a substantial investment of time, and a short story can be fit into standing in line somewhere.

Well, you’ve also done editing. How did you fall into that?

I was very stubborn about sending out stories. And so, I was sending stories to Fantasy Magazine, and at some point, the editor asked me if I was interested in, I think in reading slush, and then, was I interested in editing? And it was because we had done a lot of talking and I had been, I think, very persistent about sending him stories. So, I became the editor. I sort of fell into it. And since then, I’ve pursued a couple of projects. I’ve actually got a project coming up that I’m really excited about, which is going to be an anthology of near-future science-fiction relationship stories, because I think one of the things that science fiction has fallen short on is…often it’s very good at projecting what technology will change, but not so much on what the social dynamics are that will change.

What have you found…I mean, the editing I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot of…and so have you, you teach writing, and this will tie into that, too. But all that kind of working with other people’s work, how does that fit into your own work? Do you learn, you know, by…what’s that thing from The King and I, that by your students you are taught, if you become a teacher by your students you are taught?

Oh, you do. No, you really do learn so much. And I think that critiquing and editing other people’s stuff gives you some distance that lets you learn things that you might not from reading your own. But the other advantage of the school is that I go out and pursue teachers that I want to study with. And so, like, Seanan Maguire has done four classes for me now. I just got Henry Lien to do an awesome workshop that I’m very excited about. And so, I don’t just have the benefit of teaching. I have the advantage of, at least once a week, I’m sitting in on a class with someone world-class talking about fantasy and science fiction, and I count myself incredibly lucky.

So, despite all the teaching and everything you have published, you still feel that you’re learning the craft as well as teaching the craft?

Oh, absolutely. You’re always learning. It would be sad to stop learning.

Well, we’re going to talk about two things here. You have a…so, we’ll start with the joint project that’s coming up from Arc Manor, you and Harry Turtledove and James Morrow. James Morrow is going to be on the podcast; I’m talking to him in a couple of weeks, as well. So, tell me a little bit about that and how that came about and what your contribution to it is.

Well, A, how fricking intimidating, to write something with Harry Turtledove and James Morrow. Harry and I are Twitter friends, you know, and then we’ve met at a few conventions and talked back and forth. I’m a huge admirer of his work. And he said, are you interested in being the third in this project that Arc Manor is putting together? And I said, sure. And it was…I don’t know, it’s a really interesting project. The three novellas are incredibly different. I don’t know that you could find three more different pieces.

Three very different writers.

And Harry’s is very considered, and it’s full of quotes from Confederate history and civil war history. And you could tell he really knows his politics and stuff. So, I’m reading it, and I’m thinking, “OK, so this is what I need to do.” And then I read James’s, and James’s has a cross-dressing porn star persuading Mike Pence to do increasingly improbable things, and I’m just like, “Well, this is so like, OK, you know,” and so my story is, I just went in a completely different, different direction and went rather Black Mirror and depressing because I figured all the humor had been absorbed by James.

So, the name of the book is The Last Trump Shall Sound, is that right?

And the Last Trump Shall Sound. Yeah, it’s got a great cover based on that Grant Wood, “American Gothic,” Trump and Pence dressed up as that couple.

And that’s coming up in September, right?

It is coming out in September. And that was surreal. I’m going to say…I just did an essay about this. It’s coming out in the SFWA blog, where it was just weird. I had turned the novella in January, and I got the copy edits back a few months later. And I was just like, “Wow, the world has changed radically in the last three months.” And it was hard knowing whether to go back and insert some of the incredibly improbable things that had happened in the meantime.

Yeah, this is one of those years that should have been a science fiction novel about, oh, 1990.

Yeah.

Except nobody would have believed it, so…and then the other one, and we’re going to use this one as kind of focusing on your creative process. You have the Nebula Award-winning novelette Carpe Glitter.

 Mm-hmm.

So, for those who have not read it, can you give a quick synopsis?

Carpe Glitter is about a young woman who goes to sort through the belongings of her grandmother, who was not just a hoarder, but a stage magician. And in the course of sorting through not just one but three houses worth of clutter, she discovers a magical legacy that has influenced her family history in a way that she was not aware of.

OK, so how did this one come about and how does, more generally, I know this is a cliché question, and yet it’s a legitimate question…

It is a legitimate question.

…where do you get your ideas? Or as I like to say sometimes, what was the seed of this particular…?

What was the seed? So, with this one, it actually was the title. I was playing around with phrases, and I really liked “carpe glitter.” And I started thinking about what sort of person might have that as a life motto. And at the same time, I had been reading a book that was talking about hoarders, and I started thinking about that idea of kind of seizing the glitter and then never letting it go. And at the same time, there was a call for dieselpunk short stories. And so, I threw in a dieselpunk context and started writing from there. As far as where ideas come from, I find that the more that I am both reading short fiction and writing down ideas as they come to me, the more ideas come. It’s when I’m not reading or not paying attention to inspiration that things dry up.

I can’t remember who I was talking to, maybe it was James Alan Gardner, who said ideas are like neutrinos. They’re everywhere, but you have to be dense enough to stop them, or something like that.

I like to think of it as…your unconscious mind is a lot like a cat, and it will bring you small dead-animal story ideas as long as you are praising it. And if you are not sufficiently appreciative of the little bodies, then it will stop bringing them to you. It’s actually a pretty bad metaphor.

I like it. So, once you have your idea and you’ve decided you’re going to write this story, what does your plan…and this applies to all of your stories and also to your novels, because they often would take more planning, I would think. Are you an outliner, or are you more of a just launch right in and get writing…?

That is something that has changed a lot over the course of my writing career. And I used to be a total pantser, and now I’m much more of an outliner. But I also…I have, actually, a book called Moving from Ideas to Draft, which is about the fact that…I think ideas come in different forms. And the question I often get asked at conventions is how do I tell the bad ideas from the good ideas, by which people mean, you know, how do I tell the idea that I can turn into a story versus the one that I get halfway into and then abandon? And my theory is that there are no bad ideas. It’s simply that different ideas give you different things. And so, I have stories that started as titles. I have stories that started as characters. I have stories that started as, I want to write a story about how people carry grudges around with them and how it gets in the way. I have stories that have come about in all sorts of different ways, including just springing into my head full-fledged, which is very nice and does not happen half as often as it should.

Yeah, and sometimes…well, I have a metaphor I use sometimes, which is when you have that initial idea, it’s like you have this beautiful Christmas ornament and it’s perfect and round. And then you smash it with a hammer, and you try to get back together using words.

That’s perfect. That’s exactly what it’s like.

Because sometimes those ideas are, like, this is brilliant! And then somehow, the process of actually turning them into story can be a challenge.

The thing I always say to my students is, I used to be like, “Well, yes, sure, there’s some ideas you just, you can’t do anything with.” And then I read a story by Michael Swanwick, which basically is a story of people journeying across the surface of a giant grasshopper. And I was like, “OK, if Michael could carry that off, you can do whatever you like in a story,” because that is the dopiest idea I had ever heard. And he did it.

I always think of Cory Doctorow, who’s also going to be on the show, no too long from now. 

Oh, awesome.

And, you know, he had the one with one of the characters was a mountain and one was a washing machine.

Was it, like, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town?

Yeah, that was it. Yeah.

That was an excellent, excellent book. Yeah. Yeah.

So, once you begin writing, are you a straightforward start-to-finish, or do you write, especially in longer stuff, do you tend to write scenes and piece it together, or how does that work for you?

The longer the piece is, the more likely I am to write it as a sort of a creation of scenes. I just got…Beneath Ceaseless Skies just took a novelette from me. And one of the things I was very worried about, in fact, that it was that it had gotten written out of order. And I was worried that in the rewrite I had not made it, put it all in order. But apparently, I seem to have. So, yeah, it’s…and it’s hard. I just finished designing a class called “Principles for Pantsers,” which is basically about kind of like what to do when you’ve got these huge lumps where you’re just like, none of this makes sense. How do you untangle it?

That’s interesting that…you know, you’re teaching all these classes, and as I said, I’ve done some teaching as well, and I sometimes find that I will be telling, you know…I was writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for nine months, this last September to May, although I was writer-in-residence in my residence for the last two and a half months of that, but anyway. And, you know, I’ll tell them something, and I’m all confident and, you know, this is this…and then I think, you know, if they look in that book of mine, they’re going to see that I didn’t actually do any about it. Do you ever feel that when you’re, a little of that, when you’re teaching writing, that, you know, that sometimes you don’t do what you teach?

Oh, every once in a while, yeah. Because I’m…one of the things I’m big about is, for example, is telling people that they need to build enough time into the writing process for revision. And I suggest that they put the story away for a week at least, and then come back to it. And of course, you do that because the story in your head and the story on the paper are, as you said, one is a Christmas ornament that is beautiful, and the other is much less beautiful. And I do try to do that, but I’m also aware that I am human, and I am prone to procrastination and there is always at least a few times each year where I am like, “Holy crud, this story is due tomorrow. Why is it not done yet? Oh, oh, oh, and then turn it in at the last minute.

I always think of the…I guess it was Douglas Adams that had the quote that he loved deadlines, he loved the whooshing sound they made as they rushed by.

And as an editor, you become aware of what a pain in the ass those writers are, right? And so, you don’t want to be that person. I just had a friend, bought a reprint from me, and she sent me an email that said, basically, “We cannot send this to the audio folks until you send in the contract,” and I was like, all right, that was a really smart thing to say, because if it was just sort of like, we’re not going to pay you till you get the contract, you know, it’s ten dollars. So, of course, I’m going to probably procrastinate because, you know, ten dollars. But when I know that I’m holding people up, I’m going to be much better about it. At least, I’d like to think so.

You mentioned the revision process. So, what is your revision process…first of all, do you do it all yourself? Do you use beta readers, or how does that work for you?

I try to use beta readers, particularly for longer work, and I do have a fairly structured process where I do try to put it aside, and then I read, I create a sort of plan of attack. I move the big, kind of look for the big-ticket items, and I try to sort of work my way in with finer and finer-grained edits because it doesn’t make sense to polish a scene if you’re going to cut it out. So, the line edits are the last thing, and then the read-out-loud pass, which has to happen, is one of the very last steps.

Do you find that you have certain things that you find yourself having to polish every time?

Oh, yeah.

We all have tics that…

Oh, yeah. One of the things I do, which your listeners may find handy, is if you run a word-frequency count, you will catch, for example, the fact that you had characters tilt their head twenty-seven times over the course of a single book. So, I look for that sort of stuff because, you know, sometimes it’s basically, your mind is just saying sort of “insert body language here” and you have defaults. And so, you stick in your default, and you need to go back and just sort of make sure that you aren’t constantly tilting your head.

Yeah, I saw somebody on Twitter today who was talking about writing, say, “Is there any way that characters…” I don’t know what he was reading, or maybe it was something he was writing… “where the characters express emotion other than taking deep breaths, taking short breaths…”

Yes. And you find yourself doing whatever you’re doing. I can remember writing a short story at one point, it was when I was a smoker, and I went back and looked at the draft and realized that I’d had the character light a new cigarette like every two pages and that they surely had an ashtray smoldering in front of them, just disgustingly full of cigarette.

Somebody asked me if my character was perhaps drinking too much and if I had a problem. But no, it was just, you know, again, it’s business to fill. Sometimes you need something for the character to do. And I said, you’re probably right. I should maybe not have her, especially when she’s, like, about to be interrogated or something. She probably shouldn’t be having that second glass, whatever.

Yeah.

I also find that my characters tend to make a lot of animal noises, like, they tend to growl dialogue or snarl dialogue. And I try to catch all that, although my most recent one has werewolves and vampires in it, so the werewolves, I guess, you know, they do growl dialogue. So then, once you have this polished to your satisfaction and it goes to an editor, what kind of editorial feedback do you typically…in short stories, it’s there’s sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. In longer stuff, you’re more likely to get more editorial feedback.

Some places I get no changes at all, or they’ll fix a typo or whatever, but, like, the novelette with Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I’ve just got a second round of edits from the editor, which is kind of, that’s actually outside the norm for there to be that much. But Scott Andrews is just super, super careful with the sentences. Plus, I think he has learned to explain things at length when he makes changes because he knows I will push back if I don’t understand the change. I love Scott, and just we really go back and forth on the edits, so that may be atypical. I think most of the time when you sell stories, though, there’s not that many edits.

And if they are, I mean, I think you probably run into this when talking to starting writers and some writers are worried about what an editor will do to their…

Oh, yeah.

…deathless prose. And I always say they make it better. Typically, they make it better. If it’s a good editor.

Yeah. And it’s so rarely…I mean, I can only think of a couple of times when I have run into an editor where I thought, “OK, they are they are not doing happy things to my prose.” And I think most of the time editors are also very good about letting you push back if you can say why you’re pushing back, and” because it’s my deathless prose” is unfortunately not sufficient reason to push back.

Now, Carpe Glitter is a novelette. Was it published as a standalone originally, or did it appear somewhere else or…?

It was a standalone. Meerkat Press came to me and asked if I had any novelettes or novellas because they were starting a standalone series. And I think it had been to a couple of markets. And it actually was sort of sitting on my shelf because, as you know, longer stories are harder to sell. And so, I gave it to them, and I was so happy to work with them. And then it surprised me by winning a Nebula Award, which was super cool. 

Yeah. What was that like?

That was a ton of fun. I’m kind of sad that I didn’t get to go to the Nebulas in person, but they did just a glorious job with the online events. And honestly, I had talked myself out of it by the time that they announced it, you knew, as you do, you’re just like,” I’m not going to be disappointed. I know I haven’t won.” And so, when I won, it was just…really, it was very cool.

You’d been nominated before. But that was the first time you’d won.

That was the first time I’d won. And I’d…actually I had been nominated once and stayed on the ballot, and then I had been nominated once and there was an unfortunate issue with it having been put in the wrong category. And I ended up withdrawing from the ballot that year because if I had moved categories, I would have bumped three people off of the other ballot because they were tied and I didn’t want to do that.

You’ve been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, too. Do you think awards are valuable?

Oh…no.

I mean, aside from the, “It’s really nice to win one because it makes you feel good.”

Well…I do know that…I think it increases your stock a little bit. I know that I’ve talked to Ann Leckie, who was a classmate at Clarion West and sort of irritated us all by winning, like, every single award that she could the first year she published a novel, and she said, yeah, it’s made a difference to her career. Because she won the Hugo, she won a Nebula, she won a, I forget…Compton Crook, and she won a Clarke Award. She’s just disgusting. And I love Ann, but if I didn’t, I would have to kill her because she’s just way too talented.

Yeah. I mean, the one I’ve won is the Aurora Award here in Canada. Won it for this podcast, actually the first time I won it for a novel, but then I won it the podcast last year. And it’s really nice, and it gives you something. But, especially in the case of the Aurora, which…this is a pretty small market up here…I can’t say I’ve noticed any uptick in sales or anything. But every time a book comes out, they’ll put…you know, you can legally…not legally, but morally, say, award-winning author. So it does that.

Yeah. And you get an award. Like, I have my Nebula sitting on my shelf. I can look at it, and it’s really pretty. And it reminds me that people read my books and like them. Because writing is so solitary, as you know, it’s nice to be reminded that it’s not entirely.

That’s kind of the big philosophical question which I was headed to, which is, why do it, then? Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write, and why write this kind of stuff in particular?

Well, I think to a certain extent…at least, I meet a lot of writers who, like myself, we write because we kind of have to. We are always making stories. We are watching a paper cup floating down in the gutter, kind of going along the street, and we’re constructing a narrative in our head where it’s the brave little paper cup, and it’s, you know, that sort of thing. I mean, we just, we make stories all the time, and we like making them because making art is pleasurable. Making art is very pleasurable when other people like it, it builds to our ego. But making art is simply pleasurable for the sake of making art and knowing that you created something cool that nobody else could create.

Well, I think most writers would…or have, actually, at least for part of their career, wrote without any particular expectation that anybody much was going to, you know…it wasn’t going to get published. And even if you weren’t getting published, would you still write?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Now, I want to go back to the teaching of writing. I have to ask you about the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. Where did it come from, and how did it get the name?

So, I was teaching for Bellevue College, and no offense to any Bellevue College people that are listening, but I looked at my paycheck, and then I looked at the brochure and noticed the amount that they were paying me versus the amount that they were charging the students. And I thought, well, that seems like…kind of like a big discrepancy, actually, because I was making, like, twenty-five bucks an hour. And Google Hangouts had just come out, and I was, I had a lot of people who were also coming up to me at conventions and saying, “I really want to take a class with you, but you’re not in my area. How do you do it?” And so, I started teaching classes online about ten, eleven years ago. And at some point, I talked to my friend Rachel Swirsky and said, “You’re interested in teaching, will you come talk to my students about a class?” And then, I forget…Ann Leckie, actually, I think was the second person I brought in, I said, “Ann, will you come talk to them about space opera?” And after that, I started going after people that I wanted to take classes from. And we now have on-demand and live classes. We have a virtual campus, which, during the pandemic, we actually have been doing daily coworking sessions, and we have a short-story discussion group, and the people play writing games for an hour every week. So, the school has become a very important part of my life, actually. Particularly nowadays, that virtual campus is a place that I’m hanging out. Yeah, it’s my community.

How did you get started teaching to begin with? What drew you to, from just writing to start trying to teach other people how to write?

That was how…for Hopkins, for grad school, I got a teaching assistantship. And they had us teaching absolutely hapless Johns Hopkins freshman creative writing. Talk about the blind leading the blind. And it was this class called Introduction to Contemporary American Letters, which was basically, in my opinion, a scam to sell books by the faculty members. And so basically, they were like, here’s a list of twelve books, it just happened to be twelve books of fiction by our faculty members that you will teach. And so, it was always a very eclectic and kind of weird mix of fiction and poetry. But you have not lived until you have tried to explain John Barth to freshmen that are actively hostile to the idea that fiction might actually have something more than just sort of a story in it. It’s just…it was hysterical and wonderful.

But clearly, you got the bug.

I did. I like doing it. I like teaching. I like explaining things. I don’t even know…I like talking to people. And I think I’ve always been one of those people who enjoys talking to people and giving them advice. I suspect, were I not a writer, I would be a counselor of some kind.

Well, and is that side of things kind of what led you into becoming so involved with SFWA?

A long time ago, when I was up at DragonCon, I took one of my first writing workshops with Ann Crispin, who was a long-time super volunteer. This would have been in 2004. And she said to us, “You write a story and you qualify for membership. You join SFWA and you volunteer. And that is what you do. That is the career path you will all take.” And I was like, “Yes, ma’am.” And so, I qualified and joined. I was on a committee actually with Cory Doctorow on copyright. So, that was interesting. So, yes, that was one of my first experiences.

And then you rose up through the ranks…

Rose up…

And is it as much like herding cats as has sometimes been said?

Oh, God. It’s hysterical. Because you’ve got…like, there’s two thousand members and they are all strong, most of them are what I would call strong personalities, and even the ones that are very shy are very capable of being very strong personalities online, and you have a lot of ego, and writers are by nature insecure and prone to imagining things, which is not a good quality in a membership, in my opinion, but I mean, I had so much fun with SFWA. I made so many good friends, and one of the things that I did when I was done that last month was I sat down and I wrote a thank you note, and wrote them to all the people who had helped me or who I had encountered. And I’m sure I left out a bunch of them, but I sent out over 800 thank you notes to people.

Did you get any sense of the…state of the union, I guess, state of the genre, from your time there? You would have a different window on things than I think those of us who are just writing our stories and sending them to editors.

Oh, I think right now science fiction is in an absolutely marvelous time in some ways. I think that you’re seeing a lot of potential with independent publishing. You’ve seen a lot of potential with stuff like games that are also fiction. One of the things SFWA has done is that they now have a game writing award, which includes interactive novels and stuff like that. And it’s also a time when people, many people are working to bring a more diverse group into publishing and trying to help the already diverse folks that are there, and to me, I see a community that is so well-meaning and so good about helping each other that it is, quite frankly, one of the things that still gives me faith in humanity in, as we said, today’s odd world.

Well, I guess we can wrap things up here pretty much. First of all, though, what are you working on now?

I am writing a book two in a space opera series, the first of which is coming out from Tor Macmillan next March.

And what’s it called?

It is called You Sexy Thing, which is the name of the intelligent bioship that my protagonists steal.

So, it sounds like a far-future space opera.

It is. It’s a bunch of retired mercenaries who have started a restaurant aboard a space station. And then a mysterious package arrives, things start exploding, and we are off on adventure.

And anything else that’s in the offing?

I have a fantasy novel that should be coming out soon. It is the third book of the Tabat series, Exiles of Tabet, and I’m finishing up the edits on that right now.

And where can people find you online?

You can always find me on Twitter as @CatRambo. Most social media I’m there as Cat Rambo or findable thereon, or find me at catrambo.com.

OK! Well, I think that kind of wraps up everything I have to ask. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

I did. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

Episode 64: R. B. Lemberg

An hour-long conversation with R.B. Lemberg, a linguist, and author of many stories set in the Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world, including The Four Profound Weaves, a novella just released by Tachyon Publications.

Website:
rblemberg.net

Twitter:
@rb_lemberg

Patreon:
rblemberg

R.B. Lemberg’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Ukraine, Russia, and Israel to the US. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed’s Queers Destroy Science FictionBeneath Ceaseless SkiesStrange HorizonsUncanny MagazineSisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, and more. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. Many of R.B.’s stories are situated in Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves has just been released by Tachyon Publications.

In their academic life, R.B. is a sociolinguist working on immigrant discourse, identity, and gender. R.B. lives in Lawrence, KS with their spouse Bogi Takács, child Mati, and “an odd but cheerful community of books.”

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, R.B., welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now, we have not met in person, I don’t think, at all, but I’ve been talking to several Tachyon authors. Then I started doing the research, and you seemed like a really interesting person to talk to, so I’m looking forward to this.

Thank you.

Now, I always start off the same way, by taking the guests back into what I usually call the mists of time, more misty for some of us than others. And so, let’s start there, because Ukraine, Russia, Israel—where did you grow up and how did you get interested in science fiction and fantasy and writing?

Well, thank you so much for asking this question. As you can imagine, it is not an easy question for me to answer, because I’m from many places. So, I was born in Lviv, Ukraine, under the Soviet regime. So, I was born in the Soviet Union. My parents lived in Lviv for a while and then, due to a variety of reasons—some of them had to do with my father, who was an underground activist a little bit and had some trouble doing what he was doing. My father and my mother then went to Vorkuta, which is a circumpolar town in northern Russia. So, when you think about Fairbanks, Alaska, you know, the place, but up there in the north. It’s actually in northern Siberia. It’s on the European side of the Ural mountains, and it’s the only gulag site which was in Europe. My mother and my father had a relative there who said, “Well, it’s a place where you can actually come.” And they went there. And I lived there with them on and off. I lived with my grandmother in Lviv, and then I lived with my parents in Vorkuta until the Soviet Union started collapsing, and the situation became really, really dire, including for my family. And we sought to leave the Soviet Union as it was collapsing. And we wanted to go to the U.S., but the U.S. had quotas, as it always has, so we couldn’t actually go to the U.S., so we went to Israel. And from there, I received my undergraduate there in linguistics, and then one of my mentors said, “Well, you should go to the U.S. and study there for graduate school if you want to do graduate school.” So, I thought that was an interesting idea, and I applied to Berkeley, and they accepted me, which was really exciting. And so, I went to Berkeley, and I was in Berkeley for my Ph.D., and then I got a job. So, this is my trajectory.

As to what got me into fantasy and science fiction, I think with a background like this, you kind of almost have to. It’s not…you don’t necessarily have to, but if you do, nobody is going to be very surprised. So, my family, like for many geeks, nerds, or whatever you want to call us, my parents were into sci-fi, especially my dad. And so, when I was very little, my dad, first of all, also was into mythology and folklore, and so from a very early age, my dad, and my mom to a lesser degree, my dad would tell me fairy tales and read things to me from memory. It’s something that exists in Russian culture. A lot of people memorize poems. And with my father from, like, toddler age, I would memorize Pushkin’s fairy tale poems, I was really into them. And then, again, I remember, as a little child, I would read, I would get from my parents various mythology and folklore books. And I got also a lot of oral tradition from my family and from friends. And I was really into everything fantasy from as, you know, as young as I can remember myself. I was wandering around and I was making up worlds. I made my first constructed language at a very, very young age. I later found that it’s actually common among linguists specifically to invent constructed languages when they’re kids. So, when I started, you know, studying linguistics at the university, I met a lot of other people who had their own constructed languages and who wanted to become writers.

I didn’t actually want to become a writer for a while. I was content with, you know, thinking I would be a linguist. The problem with being a writer, it’s not that I didn’t want to because I know that I’ve written on and off—and there is also some trauma involved in this that I don’t want to get into—but I’ve written on and off. But it was really difficult for me to figure out in what language I wanted to write. And I’ve tried writing…so, the languages in which I’ve written something are varied, but they certainly include Russian. I’ve done a little bit in Ukrainian, not too much, but that was a very long time ago. I’ve done a lot in Hebrew, when I was 18, and then I’ve also written a bit in Yiddish and a bit in Czech and in Bulgarian, like, I’ve tried my hand in all the various languages that I’ve studied or felt close to at different points in my life. And then, uh, yeah, I started writing in English. When I moved to this country, I didn’t feel like I could ever write in English. I felt that my English was just not there, and I felt very self-conscious. And then, I met Shweta Narayan through Berkeley. Shweta also went through linguistics at Berkeley, and we had a mentor, who was the same mentor. So, we met through Eve, who was our mentor. And Shweta helped me. And she said things like, “It’s OK not to be a writer of a hegemonic English, and it’s OK to think about things from the perspective of a diaspora writer,” or, you know, multinational, or whatever it is that you call it. And together, we kind of explored this because Shweta also is multilingual and comes from various countries. And so, together, we started exploring the issues that kind of related to not being American, to writing in English while you’re not actually writing in your native tongue or even, you know, it’s not immediately your inheritance.

And so, we started exploring these issues. And Shweta went to Clarion. I did not do workshops for various reasons. So, we started editing this magazine called Stone Telling Magazine. I founded it, and Shweta joined me as a co-editor. And we edited a poetry magazine, which was subtitled A Magazine of Boundary-Crossing Poetry. And we looked for specifically multilingual queer, trans voices, voices of color, voices from many marginalized communities. And it kind of coalesced as it went on. And I started also publishing fiction at the time. Slightly earlier, before I started the magazine. I was publishing fiction for a short time before we started the magazine. So, doing the magazine and editing the magazine, I think, really helped me become braver about what I had to say. Because I saw the poets from all kinds of backgrounds, from all kinds of countries around the world, reach into kind of the deepest, most vulnerable place to speak about their experiences through the lens of speculative fiction. Well, speculative poetry in that case.

And that has just been extremely powerful for me, to witness how transformative the works of fantasy, science fiction, horror, magic realism, et cetera, that fall under the  spec umbrella can be to express our identities and struggles and hopes and dreams as people who do not necessarily fit into the straight and narrow, so to speak, paradigm of who gets to write what. And then, it kind of, from that place where I was so uplifted by how much the poets and the essay writers who sent us their work were brave and vulnerable and brilliant, that my work itself changed. So, I was already writing fantasy. I love fantasy. So, I was already writing fantasy, but I began writing in Birdverse, which is the universe of my upcoming novella from Tachyon, which is coming out next week, and I’m really excited about it. So, that’s kind of the long and the short of it.

What drew you to linguistics?

Well, it’s awesome.

Just the love of language?

Well, I think linguistics…so, when we think about linguistics, we think about language having a fundamental place in human experience. Language is not a universal for everybody. Not everybody uses language the same way. Some people don’t use verbal language at all, they use other means of communication. But language is such a fundamental thing for human experience. For many social science and humanities disciplines, language underlies everything. So, when you want to answer questions like…

So, here’s a more nerdy answer. When I was 14, and I’d just migrated to Israel, I was very miserable. Immigration was really hard on my family. And so, I was really, really miserable. And a friend gave me a translation of Lord of the Rings, the first book, into Russian, which existed, but it was kind of rare, and I’ve never seen it before. This was in the mists of the early 1990s, now you can figure out how old I am, but it’s not hard. So, I read it in Russian translation and the preface, which Russian editions often do, there was a beefy preface which said, “J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist and philologist and here were his interests and here’s how his interest shaped this world.” So, I read this with great interest because it really intrigued me that you could study ancient languages from a comparative perspective, which I already knew about, but I didn’t know about in detail. So, I read the book. I loved the book. There was no second or third translation into Russian that I knew about, and I couldn’t get my hands on it. So, I began teaching myself English, which was a really interesting process. I knew English a little bit already. I had some English in school, but I was not fluent, and I couldn’t read in it, it was really difficult. So, I began teaching myself English just to read this book. And I’m neurotypical. I’m also very stubborn. So, when I focus on something, I just go. And I learned English, and I read the books.

And by the time I finished, which was about a year later, I said to myself, “Actually, I’m really interested in all those works that Tolkien was inspired by, so I’m going to seek them out.” So, I began in high school, I began teaching myself, Old Norse, teaching myself Old English, teaching myself Old French. And by the time I started reading these texts and got to college and started learning them, I was so deeply in love with historical linguistics and felt, that’s the more interesting stuff than Tolkien. And I’m still interested in Tolkien. I don’t want to lambast Tolkien in any way. But I was just so intrigued by the actual ancient and medieval texts that I wanted to become a historical linguist.

And then, when I started in college, actually learning historical linguistics, I expanded my horizons beyond things that interested Tolkien to other things. And that’s kind of a lifelong journey. I’m not a historical linguist. I did not go in that direction in the end, but I still have an interest in how languages develop, in how kind of the history of languages can really be inspiring to think about in terms of world-building. I have a deep love of world-building. So, I think language is an integral part of world-building and to world-building, which is informed about cultures which are not all the same. Because languages are not all the same in how they shape how we think. And so, that’s the intersection that really interests me. And that’s where the connection between the linguistics that I do in my academic life and my fantasy writing is.

Yeah, I was interested in the fact that you’ve written in multiple…I mean, I’m feeling very…I can speak English, and I learned a little bit of French because I live in Canada, and that’s kind of it. And so I always feel a little, you know, like I’m missing out on something and wish I was better on languages. But when you’re writing in different languages…like, as I understand it, there are some things you could say in one language that never really translate to another language because it’s so specific to the language and the culture. Is that a true statement?

That is absolutely a true statement.

And how would that affect this writing in various languages?

Well, thank you very much for that question. That’s actually a really important question. First of all, I want to say that knowing or studying more than one language is awesome. So, if you can do it, that’s great. Not everybody can. But I recommend that. I think it really opens up your world. It shows you how diverse human experiences are around the world in space and time. And it’s one way to see the incredible diversity of human experience—not the only way, but it’s a good way. But there are some writers who can do multiple languages at once in their writing. I’m not one of them. When I made the decision to write in English, I just gave it my all because…I think it would have to be either Russian or English at that point and, uh…and maybe, I don’t know, and maybe Hebrew. I’m not convinced.

But what English really opened up for me personally is the queer trans experience, because in English I had through friends who taught me the words and taught me the expressions, I had the vocabulary to express my queer non-binary trans experience in a way that I couldn’t really in either Hebrew or Russian,  both languages which are very deeply grammatically gendered. So, you don’t only use pronouns which distinguish between genders, but you also do them with nouns, you do them with adjectives, you do them with verbs. And for many of them, certainly for Hebrew, you only get the feminine and masculine option. For Russian, you have a little bit more flexibility, but mostly for inanimate objects. So, it gets really fraught. And that’s something that I’m dealing with now also personally in my life. How do I talk about myself and my other languages? And also when we talk about translations. For example, I recently had a wonderful conversation with a translator who was interested in discussing with me what I want to do in Polish, not just for myself, but also for my characters.

And so, we had these discussions about how to work with these languages that have such deep grammatical gender that there are barriers which English doesn’t have. These barriers are surmountable. People do various things. But there’s just a very different approach than we have in English. And I felt liberated by English and also deeply sad that I can do it in a language which is not my native language. So, it’s created kind of like a bit of a struggle for me internally, and I express it in my fiction.

So, in The Four Profound Weaves, the main character, who is a trans man, transmasculine person, who grows up in a culture which is very binary. It’s not trans accepting. It’s queer accepting and queer normative, in fact, but it’s not trans accepting. And the language, which I built based on Semitic and Hebrew specifically, the language only has the binary options. So, that person feels alienated from his society because he needs to travel and seek help from different people whose language is more flexible, whose culture is more flexible. But that makes him feel an alienation from his own home culture, and he struggles with that. So, I feel that my fiction expresses some of these things that I think about when they think about language and the place of LGBTQIA writing specifically.

Then, I admire people, like, people who can do multiple languages at once and write bilingually. Actually, this is something that I’m exploring more and more now, having more code-switching, maybe not in Birdverse so much, but in my other works, which are kind of more magic realism, having more code-switching in there. I have supported poets and writers who want to have code-switching, which is untranslated, in their works. I think it’s really important.

So, one of the people that I published in Stone Telling, as well as in my collection that I edited called An Alphabet of Embers, who is better known as fan artist for her magnificent art. She wrote a series of these bilingual pieces where the translation is simply not offered. And I think that’s so powerful because I think I think we don’t need to control everything. Does that make sense? Like, we don’t need to understand every single word the other person is saying. It’s OK for them to have a way to voice their experiences which is not accessible to a reader who is not as familiar with those experiences. But it kind of, like, pushes against the paradigm that the editor needs to control everything the author produces. I don’t believe in that. And I also don’t believe that the reader necessarily needs to control everything that an author produces does. Does that make sense? Like, there has to be a space for partial understanding and just trust that the other person is giving you some of their experience, some of their experience which you won’t necessarily immediately understand. So, from that perspective…

Yeah, I think that does make perfect sense. I think whenever we’re…you know, even something that seems completely accessible, you are reading something that the author has things going on there that you’re not necessarily picking up on because of their background and their approach to the world. And so, I think even for something that seems on the surface to be completely accessible, there can sometimes be those kinds of hidden places where there’s something else going on. And that’s fine. And certainly, the more difficult text that we read that we don’t, you know, maybe don’t immediately penetrate what’s going on there quite the same way, that can be exciting. And I think in science fiction and fantasy in particular, it’s often that, encountering the strangeness and encountering those different ways of looking at things, that’s actually part of the appeal of the genre, at least to me.

I agree, I agree. And I think in science fiction and fantasy is where you often have this very intricate worldbuilding that shows you different worlds, you know, it shows you different models of being, that experiments with, even with language. There were plenty of science fiction and fantasy writers who thought about what other languages would look like and how it would express culture. I mean, Ursula K. Le Guin is such an amazing example of this is, but there’s many other writers who experimented with meaning and worldbuilding. So, for me, that’s the pleasure of reading sci-fi and fantasy as opposed to, I don’t know, realism, you know, that you can actually be transported. 

You mentioned a little bit about The Four Profound Weaves and kind of gave a little bit of a synopsis of it. So, let’s segue over to talk about that. Is there more of a synopsis of that you want to give or more of an explanation of the book before we talk about how it came about?

Sure, sure. Sure. So, in The Four Profound Weaves, it’s set in Birdverse, which is my secondary world, which I’ve written them before. And this novella is a standalone. In this novella, two transgender people who are in their 60s, there’s a trans man and a trans woman, they’re friends. They team together on a personal journey, and they end up learning…they want to learn how to weave from death. One of them is seeking the mastery of the four profound weaves, which is kind of a goal she had all her life and couldn’t quite accomplish. And they end up fighting an evil ruler who imprisons rebellious women and hoards their bones and souls. And they fight, they have to fight this ruler by the means of learning how to weave from death. And so, it’s kind of a novella about art and craft and waiting for very many years for something to start happening in your life that you desperately wanted and desperately waited for, and kind of getting another chance at truly figuring out who you are and embracing yourself. And it’s also a story of the transformative power of art to push against a dictatorship and tyranny. And I also feel that it’s both a story about grief, because both of these characters have a lot of a past that they have to deal with, past lovers, people who died, people who betrayed them, people who weren’t there for them, people who tried to constrain them. So, there’s a lot of grief and regret about what didn’t happen earlier in life. But it’s also a story of hope and what we can accomplish, no matter how old we are, that it’s never too late to embrace your identity and become fully yourself. So that’s, I guess, the longer synopsis.

Well, it’s set in the Birdverse universe. So, my first question at this point is always that that old hoary question, where do you get your ideas? But in this case, how did the Birdverse come about, now that this novella has grown out of it?

You know, this is also kind of a complicated question. There’s a simple answer and a complicated answer, but I’ll give you the complicated answer because I like complicated things, and I hope it’s OK. I remember when I was 16, I read, I was in Ursula Le Guin, which is pretty clear from my writing. I love her. And I also knew her a little bit personally. And I read…I don’t even remember where I read it, and I might misremember it, but I read that Le Guin said that when she was little she had, with a friend, invented a story, a kind of like a beginner’s story world, which came from a bird. And I started thinking about that because I love birds. So, I started thinking about this, this primordial egg, which is also actually mythologically widespread, there’s a lot of mythology about the world egg, the first egg. And so, I started thinking about this bird, this bird that gives birth to a world. And over the years, the thought kept percolating. I wanted to write about this bird. And I wasn’t even writing. I was not writing in any language. I was writing very little. And I was, you know, drawing. I was making worlds, but I wasn’t actually making stories at the time.

And then, somewhere in graduate school, I made up a story of a linguist character, who is not in any published works, but I’ve written two novel drafts in which she’s a character, that are not published and hopefully maybe one day will see light, but maybe not. So, there’s this linguist character who goes out to do linguistics fieldwork in some other place. And I thought, well, maybe these are connected, and maybe this is the world of the bird. And so, this is how Birdverse, roughly, was born. So, this was all before I was even writing. And then, I started writing in a completely different corner of this world just because I thought of a story.

And the story came to me, and I said, “Well, what if it’s in the same world?” So, I started writing it. I had a few of my Birdverse stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Scott Andrews has just been an amazing editor. I always praise him because he is awesome. And so, he has this really wonderful ability, both a deep interest in worldbuilding but also in character. So, he’s the kind of person who is always seeking experiences that are maybe, you know, maybe people like he doesn’t yet know or…and he’s published a lot of very diverse authors, which is wonderful. So, Scott is very encouraging to me. So, I’ve written a bunch of stories, and they became popular, people who were drawn to them. And one of those stories was my Nebula-nominated story called “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” which was a Nebula finalist and also was on the Hugo shortlist—longlist, sorry, not shortlist. I wish!—longlist. It was on the Tiptree long list. So, it got some attention. And so, there was a side character…Uiziya, the trans woman, was a very minor character in that story. And the nameless man who is a character also in The Four Profound Weaves was the grandparent of the main character in that story.

And so, for many years after that, it kept nagging at me, “Hm, I want to know what happened to these characters. I want to know their story.” So, my dad passed away in late 2016, and I was thinking about death, as one does when a parent passes away. And I was unable to write for a few months, I was dealing with grief, and when I emerged and started writing again, I wrote a bunch of stories, and then I felt that, “The time has come for me to answer the question of what’s the story of those older people.” And so, I wrote The Four Profound Weaves, and then Tachyon bought it. And here we are.

So, once you decided to do that story, what did your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you just write? How does it work for you?

I do not do a detailed outline. Oh, my God. I wish! I admire people who can do that. That seems so orderly and so good to me. I wish I could do it. I like planning, in my nonfiction and my academic work, I plan, but in my fiction, I don’t. But I do a little…I’m not a complete pantser. That I cannot say. So, tI always need to know what is, first of all, where are we starting? And it might not be where we end up starting, but kind of, I know the first scene, and then I know the last scene. And then I start figuring out what are the touchstones. In between those Points A and B, what are the big emotional scenes where the reader really will get the payoff of following my characters, and very often, scenes along the way that are very vivid to me, that I know how they’re going to look like. I want to know what they’re going to feel like when I’m going to write them. I want to imagine them. So, it’s like a movie that’s playing in my head over and over. So, I walk around, and the movie plays, and I think about that and come up with more scenes. A lot of my thinking about fiction comes when I’m in motion. So, I love walking when I can. The pandemic’s been really difficult that way for me, but I love walking, sometimes driving even, things happen. So, I need to be in motion. And then once I figured out enough of my, “Here’s A, here’s B, here are some touchstones along the way.” I try to connect them, and I start writing, and I start asking myself, “How do I lead from this scene to the next scene that I know is a pivotal emotional scene?”

So, in The Four Profound Weaves, I knew the beginning, and I started writing there, and I knew that the next big emotional point would be meeting with Uiziya’s aunt, Benesret, which happens in the desert. And so, I was writing towards that and then towards the next point and then towards the next point and then towards the next point until I reach the end. So, I can say that I’m a complete pantster, but it’s not very orderly. But that’s what it is.

Do you write it sequentially, like beginning to end, or do you write scenes and then knit them together?

I always write sequentially. That I cannot break myself from. And my friends often told me, try to just write the big scenes and then connect them and I cannot do that. I write sequentially.

Yeah. I’ve you know, I’ve talked to a few people that do it that way, and it wouldn’t work for me. I just start, and then it has to just keep flowing out.

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

What’s your actual writing process? Do you write, you know, the same time every day? Do you go out, obviously not now, maybe, but go out to the coffee shop or something? Or do you sit under a tree with a quill pen? How do you like to write?

So, I have a laptop and I’m kind of attached to my laptop. You cannot separate me from my laptop. Um, like, it’s my arm, third arm or, I don’t know, third stomach, second stomach, I don’t know. So, I write on the laptop, and I wish I could write at the same time every day, but unfortunately, I can’t commit to that just because I’m an academic, I’m a parent, you know, I work full time, I parent full time, especially now in the pandemic. I am married to another writer who also needs access to…and is also academic, Bogi is an academic as well. So, we kind of play it by ear a lot of times, but I do write every day if I can, too. I mean, things happen, and you can’t really write every day reliably if you have a disability or pain or you have, you know…maybe other people can, but I can’t always, because caregiving job, pain, you know, all of those factors combine to make my commitment to everyday writing not as firm as I would like, but I do try to write every day. Sometimes I only write fiction, sometimes I only write my academic writing, because that’s also a thing I need to write. As to where, I love writing in coffee shops. That has gone away for me, and that has been such a rough adjustment for me because I love coffee shops, and I’ve written most, I think, of my work in coffee shops up until the pandemic.

So, now that I can no longer write in the coffee shop, it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because lately, in coffee shops, I could not really be left alone. People recognize me, not necessarily because of my writing, but because they know me from various places. I’m in the college town, so it’s not huge, and I would always go to the same place. So, I would get interrupted, and I would talk to people, which is fine, I like talking to people, but I wouldn’t get as much done as I hoped for. So, being able to actually be in my room, which is my office, which was not set up at the beginning of the pandemic, but is now beautiful, it’s set up, and Bogi and I have worked out how are we going to divide the child care, and the kid is older, and he’s gotten into video games. That has been really cool because, while he’s playing video games, both of us can have some time to write. I prefer, my natural inclination is to write at night, late at night, when it’s quiet and dark. That’s when there’s no distraction, and that’s when I prefer to write. But honestly, I write whenever I can. So, if I have time, I try to do it. So, that’s my process.

Do you think of yourself as a fast writer or a slow writer?

OK, so I have two speeds, on and off. The off is when I don’t write. So, I told you I write every day, but I also can tell you that there are days when I don’t write. And by that, I mean I will write academic work. I will write nonfiction rather than fiction. And so, those days for me, I feel, “Oh, I haven’t written. I want to write.” Even though I’ve written. But when I really get…but these days are good days, when I’m not writing fiction, because I’m thinking about it and I’m planning and I’m strategizing and things are growing while I’m maybe not putting them to paper. But then, when I start writing, I begin writing, I can write things very fast because I’ve already thought about them so deeply. And I know sometimes even whole phrases that I’ve already made up in my mind, and I know them. I can write very fast. So, I think I’m neither slow nor fast. I just have variable speeds.

Once you have…you’ve started at the beginning, you’ve worked your way to the end. Then comes the revision process. What does that look like for you? Do you go back to the beginning, start the beginning, work your way through? Do you have beta readers? How does it all work?

So. immediately after I finish, I am tempted to immediately begin revising. All of my friends told me not to do it, and they’re all right, they’re all correct, and I’m not. But I can’t stop myself because usually, when I’m carried past the moment of the end, I have built so much momentum I am tempted to immediately start revising. So, I let myself do it. And in the first pass, I usually fix the issues that I already know are there. And I make the beginning work better with the end. And I fix sentence-level stuff, I fix some continuity issues. My drafts tend to be quite clean. This is my downfall because the fact that they’re are clean and readable doesn’t mean that they don’t need work. So, after I’ve done the second pass and I’ve completed the second pass, I usually do one of two things. Either I send it out to a beta reader, a friend who wants to read, and reads it for me. Sometimes it’s Bogi, sometimes it’s one of my other close friends. I mean, I just lost a very dear friend, Cory, who would read a lot of my stuff at that stage and…I’m sorry, it’s just still very raw. And after that, beta readers give me, or maybe they’re more alpha readers than beta readers at this point. They give me feedback, and they say, “Well, this worked, this didn’t work, or this is this is cool, or they didn’t understand. Then I usually put it away because it needs to bake a little bit. And then after a few weeks, sometimes a month, sometimes even more, but usually it’s a few weeks to a month, I come back to it, and I do a serious revision.

What sorts of things do you find yourself working on at that level, once it comes back for some serious revisions? Is it, like, characterization, plot, description, what sorts of things do you have to work on?

It’s always plot. It’s always plot. It’s always, always, always plot. I believe that each writer has a weakness or weaknesses and a strength or strengths. And so, I often when I give advice, I tell people, play to your strengths, emphasize the strong things, whatever it is, if it’s plot, work on plot, if it’s character, work on character, if it’s relationships, which is character work, too, work on relationships, if it’s world-building, work on that, just do what brings you joy. And then, in revision, you need to work on the things that you are less strong in. And my world-building, I think, is very strong. This is my strength. This is where I’m at home. This is what I want to do. My character work, I feel, I understand from other people, is strong. Like, people love my characters. People connect to my characters. So that’s all good. Plot, however, is not a strength for me. And I have put a lot of effort over the years into becoming better. A lot. But I’m not, and I’m not because I’m not into linear storytelling at all. I love a tapestry. I want worlds to be complicated. I want it to be interconnected. And I don’t like linear plots. However, people love linear plots, or at least A to B type of plots, and they’re easy to read, and they’re engaging. So, the bulk of my revision work is always plot, and it’s always pacing, like, knowing how to build pacing. That’s going to really make something pop. But it’s very rarely other things.

I was going to ask you about characterization. That sounds like something that you’ve got all worked out in your head before you start actually writing, then. How do you find your characters, and how do you go about building them?

Thank you. So, my characters. So, I think, over the years, I’ve talked to a fair amount of writers about characters and there are many very interesting approaches to building character. Some go a route that I think of as the D&D route, where you have a character sheet, and you kind of build the character on the sheet, which I think works. And it’s a great technique if you’re into it, where you write what they look like and their likes and dislikes and their strengths and weaknesses and all that. And from that, you build a character. For others, it is more like, this is a person. And for me, this is how it happens. I meet a person, and that person is a character in my world. Usually, they start out as secondary characters in my world, which is why people often feel, oh, it’s all connected. Yes, it’s all connected, but there’s no beginning. Like, there’s no canonical this is the first. I mean, The Four Profound Weaves is the debut, so I guess it’s going to be the first. But a lot of times, I write something, and there’s a secondary character, and I know very little about them. And when I finish writing, I start thinking, “Hmm, there was a little scene in the little place and that person was sitting somewhere in the corner, and the person said an interesting thing. I want to know that person a little bit better.” And so, I start, as I walk around before, long before, I start writing, as I walk around, I start imagining what the person is like. How do they move? Like, how do they speak? Like, what language do they speak? What are they wearing? Are they fat, thin, or maybe somewhere in between? Are they older or are they younger? What are their relationships like? Do they want something, to tell me something?

And then at some point, characters in my head start talking to me, and they start telling me a little bit. Usually, these are things that they don’t tell other people. Maybe nobody listens. Maybe it’s painful. Maybe it’s too personal. So I feel the storyteller, for me, how I see myself, the storyteller is the presence that, when you are alone, and you’re really conflicted or torn or in pain, and you want to tell something to somebody, the storyteller is that hovering presence in the empty room, who is listening to that voice, that then you say to an empty room, “OK, this hurts,” or “I want to tell a story from my childhood,” or “This is something I’ve never told anybody.”

And so, I think a lot of my character building begins there and begins with a secret, with something the character didn’t want to talk about. I write a lot about characters who are traumatized, who are neurotypical and/or disabled in some way. Trauma plays a major role in my storytelling. I want my storytelling to be both gentle in its treatment of trauma and also not to shy away from the fact that people have trauma in their lives. And so, once I learn a person’s secret, it becomes something really deep for me and really meaningful. I want to give them gentleness and healing. So, a lot of my readers have really appreciated that even when my stories get really dark, and they often get really dark, there is a place for healing. I am not there to break the reader. I want to unbreak the reader. And often, the readers who most appreciate my work are readers who themselves have marginalization. They come from places that maybe they have struggled and they have trauma. And so, they appreciate that perspective of caring that I bring to my storytelling.

So, I would think that if I spent maybe half or maybe a third of the time that I spend on my characters and plot, I would be golden. But I don’t. So, that’s why plot takes second seat, and it really shouldn’t because we need plots. A plot is a skeleton of a story, and it shouldn’t fall down without the skeleton. But think I’m just really into characterization, and I really love my characters. And if I write about them for a while, they become people to me, and I care about them.

Once you have the actual draft, as far as you’re going to take it, then it goes to an editor. What does your editorial feedback tend to look like?

So, I worked with some amazing editors. I’ve had so much luck in terms of my editors, and I think that editors, editors who understand the writer’s work, and want to make it better, are golden. And there are many wonderful people in the industry who are like that. At Tachyon, I worked with Jaymee Goh, and I worked with Jill Roberts. Both of them have had an impact on how The Four Profound Weaves was shaped when they accepted the novella.

It was much shorter, and they wanted it longer. It was still a novella, but it was shorter. They wanted it longer. They felt it needed more room. And so, with the help of Jaymee, who gave me…Jaymee, she gave me kind of, like, here’s where it can go, here are some of the things that we feel needed more development. And so, I sat with it, and then I revised it. And Jamie gave me very detailed and very sensitive editorial instructions, which just made, I feel…and then, when Jaymee was done with it, Jill, who was the managing editor at Tachyon, who’s also fantastic, Jill read it, and Jill gave me actual comments. Some of them I took, some of them I didn’t take. And it was just the most collaborative, constructive, and respectful process. And so, that’s one of the reasons I say that I love working with Tachyon because the people there are good. They’re good people. They’re sensitive. They want the story to be the best it can be. They’re committed to working with the writers. I really love that process.

I also had so much luck with Scott Andrews, whom I already mentioned. I’ve worked with other editors who were golden, too. But I think Scott, especially. I learned so much from him, especially when I was a new writer. Scott would ask me questions and try to understand why I made the decisions that I made, even when he thought a scene is dragging too long or too short or, “I don’t understand why this is happening” or “I don’t understand this character.” Scott always tries to understand where you’re coming from with a story. 

So, I remember I was sitting in my office at work, and I got my first rewrite request from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And I was thinking, “Oh, my God, this could be my second professional sale. I’m on my way to becoming a SFWA member.” I was really into it at the time. I am a SFWA member now. And the more I read of it, it was so long, and I was getting this feeling of fear. “I am never going to be able to do this. I don’t understand how this works.” And so, my friends, bless them, walked me through it and said, “No, actually this is really sympathetic. Try to just respond to it.” And so, I sold the rewrite request. And after I’d done that, I felt like…I’ve learned that beyond my own revision processes, I also will work with an editor. And the editor that I want to work with is an editor who is hands-on. I love that. I love the back and forth. I love the dialogue. I love working with editors who are not the my-way-or-the-highway type of editor because that that cannot work for me. But I like—I love—working with editors who are collaborative, who want to make the manuscript the best it can be, who can give feedback, who are invested in the work. And I just hope that going forward in my career, I will work with other editors and/or the same editors, because I love my editors, who are hands-on.

Well, the novella will be out when this airs. It’s about to come out as we’re recording it. But you’ve had some pretty good reviews already, so it looks like…are you happy with the response you’re seeing from some of those reviewers?

I am so happy, I am just beyond thrilled with the response that I’ve been getting on the novella. I have gotten a starred review from Publishers Weekly. I’ve gotten a starred review from the Library Journal. I got one from Forward Literary, also a starred review, which is for indie titles. I’ve gotten a lot of advance praise. And I am just so…I mean, how can you not be happy with such a response? I did not anticipate that it would be so positive. I’m thrilled. I also know that some people, from the reviews I’ve seen here and there, I feel that some people felt that my language was too lyrical and that kind of was not their thing. And that’s OK. I am a very firm believer that not every book is for every reader. And the beautiful thing about science fiction, fantasy, and horror is that there is room for a variety of styles and approaches. And if not every reader is going to embrace it, that’s just fine. I just was most concerned about doing justice to my community.

So, I wanted the work to speak first and foremost to the experience of trans people and queer people and people who have maybe lived long lives and struggled with coming out, or lived long lives and struggled with regret. So, I’ve had some sensitivity readers and beta readers and alpha readers from the community who’ve read the book and have given me their comments, and they all felt that the book is sensitive. So, that’s what was super important to me. And it’s as important as those starred reviews for me because I want to do justice to my people and I want to uplift my people. I actually want to uplift everybody because everybody deserves an experience of hope that’s coming out of some kind of personal darkness. I think that’s a beautiful thing, and that’s what I kind of try to achieve with this book. But it’s OK that there’s no universal adoration. I do not want that. I do not expect that. But I’m thrilled with the response, and I’m just hoping that people who need this book will find it.

I would say I never expect universal adulation. I wouldn’t say I don’t want universal adulation.

Hey, if it comes, it comes. But I don’t think it’s a thing I strive for. You can’t please everyone. You just can’t. People are so different.

Yeah, people are very different. One thing about the podcast here, you find out from talking to, you know, so many different writers, is how different everybody’s approach is to the craft. And that kind of brings me to my big philosophical question at the end, which you maybe kind of answered along the way a bit. But as I mentioned off the top, when we were setting this up, that question is, why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? Why do you think any of us do, for that matter? What is it that makes us tell these stories?

OK. So, I don’t know. And I wish I did, but I think if I if I knew that would make me maybe not as human as I am for me personally. I just don’t feel that this…why are humans, some humans compelled to creativity, is a question about God, the universe, existence, and other things. But I often feel, I often think about the metaphor of the pearl for myself. And the metaphor of the pearl is that the pearl, you know, a mollusk exists with no problem up until a grain of sand lands, and you begin working around this grain of sand and wrapping it and wrapping it and wrapping it, and it feels really painful, and you don’t know why you’re doing it. Then, in the end, you hopefully created the pearl and not a pile of shit—so sorry, pardon me. So, for me, the process of a grain of sand has landed, and now we’re working around it. That’s the metaphor that I’m working with. Not a lot of…  don’t know if everybody’s like this, but that’s what it is like for me. Something is bothering me that cannot be expressed through nonfiction, that cannot be expressed through not writing, and that something needs to be expressed. And that’s why I’m writing.

And what are you working on now?

So, I’m working on the few Birdverse longer pieces. I’m working on revising a novel that I’ve been working on for a long time that’s about revolution and linguistics, also set in Birdverse. There’s one other thing that I’m working on in Birdverse, which is a novella about a character about whom I also…who is a side character in some of my other works that I’ve known about for a long time, who needs to save her people from disaster and is not really managing to save her people from disaster. It is suddenly very, very current. It wasn’t as current as when I was starting it. So, that’s what I’m working on. And then I’m also working on a science fiction novel which is called, in my head, it’s called Space Putin because it is about Putin in space, or not Putin, but somebody who is like Putin maybe a little bit. 

I suspect that title will change!

It’s not going to be the title. And hopefully, hopefully Putin is not going to get, the real Putin, is not going to get involved. But I am a big fan of the Brothers Strugatsky, who are Russian science fiction writers that were fundamental for most Russian-speaking people who write science fiction. Also, people in general, awesome writers. And so, I’ve been doing a long reread of Strugatsky work for a while now, and I decided to write a section novel. It’s about two people, from kind of different factions who…and one of them is a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of somebody who is very important in the revolution and must be now on the run from space Putin. So, it’s kind of an adventure, but also has these themes and thoughts about the Soviet Union that I have and how it collapsed and other things.

Well, I’m going to remember Space Putin now, that’s for sure.

It is catchy, isn’t it?

It is, it is. And where can people find you online?

So, I am on Twitter a little bit too much as RB_Lemberg, and then I have a Patreon, which is RBLembergwithout the underscore, just patreon.com/RBLemberg.

And I post a lot of things that I don’t want to publish, or I don’t get published, I publish on Patreon, which includes fiction, poetry, drawings, and other things. And I also have a website, rblemberg.net, where you can I can follow me. I am not on Facebook, I don’t like Facebook, not really. I mean, I’m kind of there, but I’m not there really. And I’m a little bit on Instagram, but those, those are not good outlets. I think I’m mainly on Twitter and on Patreon in those days.

I talk a lot of authors who are on Instagram, but I hardly ever do anything on Instagram. It’s a hard one to get a handle on for me. 

I post flowers. So, if people want flowers they can go.

Cat pictures. Cat pictures are always good. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that, I hope you did, too.

Yes, I did. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for such great questions. I really enjoyed the conversation.

I did, too. OK, bye for now.

Episode 63: Kathrin Hutson

An hour-long conversation with Kathrin Hutson, internationally bestselling author of dark fantasy, science fiction, and LGBTQ+ speculative fiction, ghostwriter, fiction co-editor of Mud Season Review, and director of interviews for TopShelf Magazine.

Website
kathrinhutsonfiction.com

Facebook
@KathrinHutsonFiction

Instagram
@KathrinHutsonFiction

Twitter
@ExquisitelyDark

Kathrin Hutson’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

International bestselling author Kathrin Hutson has been writing dark fantasy, sci-fi, and LGBTQ speculative fiction since 2000. With her wildly messed-up heroes, excruciating circumstances, impossible decisions, and happily never-afters, she’s a firm believer in piling on the intense action, showing a little character skin, and never skimping on violent means to bloody ends.

In addition to writing her own dark and enchanting fiction, Kathryn spends the other half of her time as a fiction ghostwriter of almost every genre, as fiction co-editor for Burlington’s Mud Season Review, as director of Top Shelf interviews for TopShelf Magazine, and is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers’ Association. Kathrin lives in Colorado with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Bruce Willis.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kathrin, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me, Edward. I’m really glad to be here.

Well, I’m very glad to have you. We made the connection through Mickey Mikkelson, who’s my publicist and has been doing some publicity for you, too. I’ve got some really good interviews coming up, thanks to Mickey. So, I appreciate his help.

I’m going to start the same way I always start, which is kind of a cliche on here. I keep saying I’ll put reverb on it. I’m going to take you into the mists of time, which is, you know, considerably mistier for some of us than others. But anyway, I will go back to when you were growing up and how you got interested in writing. Most of us started as readers. Is that how it started for you? And where did you grow up, for that matter?

Yes, well, I did actually grow up here in Colorado. We have just recently returned after having lived, you know, in three other states across the country. But I yeah, I started reading at a very young age. I think I was probably almost three, or three same age as my daughter. And she’s reading now, too. So, it doesn’t surprise me. But yeah, I have always been an avid reader, and I always loved the escape of hopping into stories that had nothing to do with reality, my own personal life, hence, probably, my love for writing speculative fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, the whole bit. And I actually started writing when I was ten. I was having this recurring nightmare that, you know, it doesn’t seem scary at all now, but at the time it was terrifying and aggravating, that I was in my favorite movie, which when I was ten was FernGully, and I could not change the ending of that movie, which is the only thing that I didn’t like about it. So, I kept having this dream that I was in the movie and I should have been able to change it, but I could never change the ending, and it just really, really got me. I’d been having this dream for like two weeks, and I woke up, on my 10th birthday, actually, after having this dream again, and I was just so frustrated and so upset. And then it occurred to me, just suddenly out of nowhere, that I could write the end of the movie if I wanted, and maybe that would get the dreams to stop. I didn’t actually write the end, rewrite the ending, of FernGully, but I dove into my very first attempt at writing any kind of story at all, and over the next, oh, I think, two years, it turned into, oh, something like three hundred printed pages of a book about fairies that actually, you know, turned out to be very dark and depressing and, you know, it set me up for success. And that’s where it started.

Well, what were some of the books you were reading that had an impact on you, do you think?

Around that time, I know…the only thing that stands out in my mind a lot was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and I can’t even remember who the author is.

Patricia McKillip.

Thank you so much! It always slips my mind.

I read it too!

OK, good. I love that. I love that you have. A lot of people haven’t, or at least people I’ve spoken to have not read it. And I also think I’d also read all of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s big giant collection. I’d already read those. And I may have at the time been diving into this His Dark Materials series…is it Philip Pullman?

Philip Pullman.

Yes. Thank you. And so, you know, I was already reading things…oh, I also read Stephen King’s It when I was ten, as well. So that, like, probably had a lot to do with that. A little bit of an eclectic reading list for sure.

A lot of early readers…I mean, I didn’t start reading quite as early as you did, but I did learn to read in kindergarten. We had a teacher that wasn’t so much teaching us how to read but was setting us up for it and taught us the sounds of the letters. And I immediately made the connection and said, “Oh!” I started reading, and I actually skipped the first grade. They put me straight into grade two because I’d already learned how to read.

Very nice!

So yeah, I, I was always reading, you know, I’d be reading the kids’ stuff, and I liked reading stuff for kids my age in it, obviously, but then I was also reading stuff that was, you know, wildly inappropriate.

Yes, absolutely.

I remember reading…I think I read The Caine Mutiny when I was about 10, and I was asking my mom what some of the words were, and she was going, “What are you reading?”

That’s hilarious. My dad actually gave me his childhood copy of Robinson Crusoe when I turned 10, as well, and I started reading that too. It was just a crazy amount of words.

So, all these words and stories and things are going into your head. It’s no wonder you’re first…that’s a fairly lengthy thing for your first thing to write, 300 pages of fairy story.

Yeah, it was. I mean, it will never see the light of day, and it will never…nope! I still have it, but it’s not being taken back out. But it started me on the process.

So, what happened after that? You kept writing on through school and into high school?

I did. I kept writing…mostly, I’d work on random short stories here and there, just because it felt, obviously, you know, as they do, so much easier and faster to finish short stories. And then I started writing this dark fantasy, big, gigantic, enormous; it turned out to be altogether, when I finished the first chapters, 250,000 words. And I had finished at 11:57 on New Year’s Eve in 2007. I had told all of my friends that I wasn’t going out for New Year’s or going anywhere because I had to finish this book. And I did. I had to finish it before the New Year. And I had written that all through my first three years of high school at that point and during classes as well. Everyone thought I was such a wonderfully attentive student, taking so many notes, but I was writing a book instead. And then that later, once I sat on it for years and years and years and then had some extensive revisions, that giant first novel became my first two books, the Gyenona’s Children duology, Daughter of the Drackan and Mother of the Drackan, and that launched my author career, as well. So, I wrote them forever ago, but they stuck around.

When you were writing as a young person, were you sharing your writing with your friends? I always ask that because I get differing answers, but it’s always interesting to me because I did. And I wonder what other people did.

Oh, yeah. I tried as hard as I possibly could to share them. Unfortunately, I was the only one among my friends who was interested in writing and creative writing and sharing that process and, you know, getting and receiving feedback and probably even reading fantasy and sci-fi at all, in any way. So, a few friends would read it. And the only feedback I ever got was, “Oh, it’s good. I liked it.”

You don’t always get very useful feedback from your high school chums.

Yeah. And, you know, I’d definitely push for them to, like, tell me, like, what doesn’t work, what do you not like, which I want to hear. And no one could say anything, so…and I think eventually they stopped actually reading it, would probably just leave, you know, the manuscript on, I don’t know, a table somewhere and never actually read it. So, I got a little bit but not very much at all.

Did you study, formally, writing at any point during there? And then when you got to university level, did you do any formal study of writing?

I did.

And was it helpful? Yeah, there, that’s an even better question. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for a bachelor’s in creative writing fiction, and it was a great experience at first, immediately, because I was rejected. Like, my application for the creative writing fiction program was rejected the first time I applied, and I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me, because if I’m not going to college for this, I’m not going to college for anything. This is all I want to do. And so, that was my first little dose of, like, “OK, I’m not as great as I think I am. Excellent. I have room for growth.” And then, I applied again and was accepted, with a different short story, which was wonderful. And so, then I went through those undergraduate classes, and it was all writing short stories. And for our finals, we had to write and complete a full-length novel and then return with, it was either one acceptance letter of any of our short stories or if we caught an agent’s interest by querying or…I think it was something like 15 to 20 rejection letters. So it’s like, either you get one in, and that’s your final, or you at least make sure that you are applying and being rejected by people.

That’s interesting.

Yeah. But, you know, it had a lot to do with just preparing, I think, you know, budding writers for the process of what comes, ahead of time. And this is definitely before self-publishing was very much of an option at all. But I did find a lot of things particularly helpful in those classes and my formal creative writing education at the university level. And I think there was one workshop that sticks with me particularly, where I had turned in a short story. It was my week for my story to be workshopped. And then, when that arrived, I had written the story just as, like a…I had no inspiration, no motivation. I just kind of vomited words onto the page, and I knew it wasn’t good. And then, when it came time to workshop this story, my classmates just absolutely tore it apart, just ripped a new one in that thing, and I just remember sitting there and being like, “Yep, yep, I know, I know. It’s awful. Yeah. OK. So that didn’t work. All right.” And that was an important experience for me to have because I hadn’t had that, I guess, aggressive level of critique before. And then it also, you know…I got to kick myself back into gear after that, and then I have always been highly aware of the fact that I can’t lower my own expectations for myself and my own writing, and I’m not going to be able to fool anyone by writing something that I know is awful. And that was great. That was a wonderful learning experience. And I got a lot out of crafting character and natural dialogue and other things, of course, that just are always honed over time and with practice, right?

Where are you writing the kind of stuff you write now during those courses, and was there any pushback on that? Certainly, when I’ve talked to some writers, they encountered the, “Oh, you can’t write that crap. We’re literary here” kind of a pushback from some of their instructors.

Right. Yeah. It was very literary-centric, and so I didn’t write any speculative fiction for the short stories and the assignment. It wasn’t…I suppose it was more or less frowned upon. I think perhaps that magical realism may have been as far as toward the line, not even across it, as was accepted, but I did dive into humor, too, which was just really fun. But no, I wasn’t writing any fantasy or sci-fi at that time just because I didn’t have time to keep writing other things. I was writing all these pieces for my classes, which was great because I was still writing, and that was the point.

Yeah, well, just…you know, I was a newspaper reporter because I decided as I was heading into college that, well, nobody can make a living as a writer, so… not right off the bat, anyway. So I decided to do something that would involve writing, and what I found was that, you know, writing three features a week and news stories and columns and everything else, because I was working at a weekly where you write everything, just putting words down on paper, you know, hundreds and thousands of words, it’s the practice of putting words together is valuable no matter what kind of words they are, almost.

Yeah, right. As long as they make sense.

As long as they make sense. I think they usually did.

Yeah, that’s good. I would hope so.

So, you talked a little bit about, you know, some of your early books actually then became the ones that got you started on your professional career. And how did that come about? How did you break in?

Ah, yes. Well, so, I queried the heck out of the first book in that duology, Daughter of the Drakan, and did more revisions and more querying, and I racked up 115 rejection letters for this first book. And I had, you know, previously been seeing and hearing some stuff from other people about, you know, like indie publishing is becoming a thing, it’s an option, it’s something you can do. And I was like, all right, I promised myself that, if no one wanted to pick up this book traditionally and, you know, where I would find an agent and hopefully a publisher and I was going to exhaust all my other resources and options, like a query to literally everyone in the Writers’ Marketplace who accepted queries for fantasy.

And then, when no one picked it up, I was like, “OK, well, I just want to put this book out there. I just want to…you know, I wrote it, I want people to be able to read it. So, I went through the indie publishing process, and as a first-time indie author, first-time indie publisher, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and I can 100-percent admit that because there was a huge learning curve. And so, you know, some things that I did in the very beginning were, you know…I release books a lot more professionally and with a lot more experience under my belt now. But that first book was really, really well received, and a lot of people loved it, and it’s still a favorite, I think, with some of my core readers who stick around and pick up everything that I put out these days, still, since Daughter of the Dracken came out. So, that has been very cool.

And yeah, it has just been a learning process the entire time along the way, and I’ve, you know, found mentors and guides and have read all the how-to’s I could find, and I’ve also learned so much through ghostwriting and seeing kind of behind the scenes, how things work in the industry with my quite big clients who I go straight for, and I get to take a peek at their little secret processes and their own formulas for things, and that’s been very helpful, too.,

How did the ghostwriting come about? You probably can’t say who you ghostwrite for…

No, I can’t.

…but how did that come about for you? It’s interesting. It’s not exactly ghostwriting, but I’ve done, like, a house-name sort of writing, and it’s always…it was an interesting process because I was handed the plot and the characters and it’s…

Yeah.

And yet, you still have to make it work for yourself as the writer.

Right.

So, anyway, how did that come about for you?

Well, I had…I was watching this company for a while who…I guess that they’re, like, a do-it-for-you kind of service for indie authors and handling ads and reader engagement and that publication process. And I didn’t actually do anything with this company, but they had forwarded a link to this webinar that was about ghostwriting and that, you know…and I know absolutely nothing about it in the beginning, so I was going in with an open mind. You know, they had a great pitch about like, “This is how you make six figures a year writing fiction,” if that’s what you want to do, and you don’t care about not doing it for yourself. And so I was like, “Wow, that sounds like…is that really true? I have to see.”

And so, I watched this webinar. And I found out more about ghostwriting was and I saw some of these numbers that were coming up for projects and I just felt this, like, huge pull into this, it was like, “Oh, my gosh, if I could get paid this much to just write all the time, doesn’t matter what it is, just fiction, just…and, like, have everything handed to me and all I have to do is write it, that sounds literally like the most phenomenal thing. You know, second, of course, to making tons and tons and tons of money on my own books and being able to write full time just for myself. And so, I applied for this mentorship after this webinar, and I didn’t…I got accepted after having sent in writing samples and stuff, but it was one of those, you know, it was a course and, of course, there’s a certain amount of investment coming from my part that had to be contributed beforehand. And it was more at the time than I could afford, and so I sent email after email after email. “I really want into this mentorship. I really want to know how to do this.” I’d try to haggle and barter and make deals. And that went on for like three weeks until finally, I was like, “All right, this probably isn’t going to happen. It’s probably not going to happen.” And then I got an email saying, “You know what, we’re willing to do this with you, for this and this and this, these terms. How does it sound?” And I was like, “Yes! Yes!” so, it paid off. 

And then I dove into it with both feet. And at that time, my daughter was seven…no. No, no. She was…I’m so sorry, I sound like a ridiculous person. My daughter was just over one and a half years old at that time. So, I started this process of diving into the mentorship and then learning how to navigate freelancing as a ghostwriter. And actually, the person who was leading this mentorship turned out to act as sort of an agent for me for finding clients and projects directly through him after the program ended, which is wonderful because I didn’t have to, you know, do the freelancer hustle. And then, I just started landing, just kind of one big client right after the other. And I don’t think I’ve had a new client for the last 14, 15 months, which has been really great. This has been a consistent, repetitive thing, and the opportunities just keep opening up, just really great.

What have you learned from being a ghostwriter that you apply to your own writing?

Oh. That is a great question. I have learned that there’s a big difference between what I write for myself under my own name and the type of story that appeals to a much wider audience. I may be a little bit of a specialty writer, I suppose. And I’ve heard that, you know, some people have read my stuff and said, “Oh, this is too dark for me. I can’t do it. It’s not happy enough.” And I just…I can’t go there. And I’ve gotten a few poor reviews because of that as well, which I actually really appreciate because it tells me that what I am writing, I am writing for a very specific group of people. And so, I’ve been ghostwriting almost in every genre. I know I can’t write romance. I tried it once and failed, and that was that. But everything else, I’ve learned a lot about the kinds of tropes that consistently need to be filled, book after book, series after series, that the characters may change and the storylines change, obviously, that more people are willing to read and will enjoy, you know, kind of balancing the escapist reading with the reading that…for me personally, I always choose books that have a little more to offer underneath the surface, and I love dark stuff. So that’s, you know, that’s where I go automatically.

Ever since you were ten, apparently.

Yes. Quite. A lifelong love affair with evil! And so, I’m actually writing this new dark urban-fantasy series, which…under my own name, I will be publishing the first in that series fairly soon…and it’s actually been really interesting for me to take, you know, what I’ve learned with my ghostwriting work and, you know, writing in someone else’s voice and to the tropes that they…that are necessary in the books that this client publishes…and, hence, picking out those bits and pieces after two years of seeing what makes these books good and what makes people love them and crave more of them, and bringing that into my own little super-dark flavor. So, this new series is not nearly as dark as I truly love to go, but it does get there, and then it comes right back out again. And it uses a lot of the tricks and sort of…perhaps it’s not as angsty maybe as some of the things I’ve written or not as depressing, perhaps, but it’s…yeah, it’s been really, really fun to learn what works well for a much wider range of people who are reading to escape real life and, you know, instead of to dive deeper into real life or…relatable discoveries, I guess I could say. So, that’s been fun. That’s probably been the biggest thing, the biggest thing that I’ve learned is to not take myself so seriously. I can write a lot of things if I just let it happen and not try to make it so perfect.

Well, we’re going to talk specifically on this podcast about…well, I guess it’s two books…I keep wanting to say Sleepwalker, but it’s not Sleepwalker, it’s Sleepwater, Sleepwater Beat and Sleepwater Static.

Yes.

So, without spoiling anything, tell us what they’re about.

Yes! This is…these are the first two books in the Blue Helix series, which is LGBTQ+ dystopian sci-fi and also…a total mash-up, including noir and horror elements, and I’ve had some readers even categorize it as urban fantasy, which was not really where I was going.

Well, it’s an urban setting, and it’s a fantastical story. So, there you go.

Yeah. Yeah, you know, there’s some supernatural elements to it that, you know. The series is like…at least, Sleepwater Beat, the first book was…I like to describe it as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets X-Men. That seems very fitting to me. The entire Blue Helix series revolves around a minority group of people in the world who have developed this supernatural ability to affect people around them physically by storytelling, basically verbal storytelling, so this visibility is called the beat. And so, it is kind of like X-Men in a way, where all these people have these abilities, no one really knows how they got them, and they’re different for everyone, but it’s all telling stories and speaking.

And so, the storyline through the whole series follows these people with the ability, and they are part of this organization called Sleepwater, and it explores how Sleepwater was born, and where they’re headed into the future and, you know, they are a minority group of people who are feared by the world and misunderstood and hated and hunted and discriminated against. And that was one of the major points that I wanted to touch on, even when I first started writing Sleepwater Beat and had no idea that this was going to be a series, but, surprise!, and I to touch on marginalized communities and kind of take a deeper look at discrimination and bigotry in the broad sense, by looking at it through the lens of, you know, a group of people that doesn’t exist in real life, that…

Well, that’s what they want you think.

Very true! They’re hiding. And, you know, so, Sleepwater Beat focused on Leo Tieffler. She was the main character in book one, and she had more of me poured into her than any other character I’ve written, just because it felt right to the story, which is odd, but I did it. And so I touched on homelessness and drug addiction and the LGBTQ community and broken homes and…oh, there’s all kinds of deep, dark places, survivors of drug addiction and family issues…I’ll leave it at that…and so, I wanted to bring all these things to light through this really awesome, fun, amazing story that follows this group, Sleepwater, who all have this ability and who are hunted down because of it.

And then, Sleepwater Static continues that story, but we have a new main character, Bernadette Manney, and she…she’s a minor supporting character in Sleepwater Beat, and then she got her own book for Sleepwater Static, book two. And I really…it was really important to me to dive deep into exploring discrimination when it came to racism and racial injustice, and that is what Sleepwater Static was kind of based around. And so, it’s set…pretty much all of it is set in the American South, and Bernadette is a white woman in her 70s, with arthritis, and she’s still super-incredible and strong and amazing and doesn’t take crap from anybody. And we get to see reflections of her past and her relationship with Darrell, who’s a black man. And they’re in South Carolina and, you know, the difficulties that they faced through growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and having a child, and being together, and then also seeing them reconnect again, if you will, in their 70s, when Bernadette and this group of Sleepwater are being chased across the country and hunted and just looking for kind of a place to settle down for a second and catch a breath. There you have it.

So, it’s you obviously have some big themes you want to explore. Did you start with the themes, or did you start somewhere else? In other words, where do you get your ideas? It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a legitimate question. And, the way this story began, is that typical of the way that ideas, the seeds of ideas come to you?

Right. No! The beginning of Sleepwater Beat is completely atypical. One hundred percent. Absolutely. It started with me writing an experimental short story. I had, you know…one scene popped into my head of a, like, I don’t know, teenage girl punching a guy in the face and knocking him over the edge of a frozen waterfall. So I have, like, fairly violent daydreams, as well, and they get written into my books. So I wanted to…you know, I sat with it for a little while, when that scene popped into my head, and sort of thinking about it, and then decided that I wanted to try a sort of experimental short story where I wanted to see if I could create a coherent story with scenes that were completely out of chronological order from beginning to end. And it sort of worked. And I got the point across in the story, but it wasn’t finished. And I had actually workshopped it with the writers’ group I was a part of in Charleston, South Carolina, when I lived there with my husband. And they were so enthralled by what I had started in this short story that they asked so many questions and just opened up so many doors and told me that they wanted to see more and that it had to be a book. And I was like, “Wow. Wow, OK. I agree with you.” And then I took two years to rip apart that short story and decide what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to change and turn it into, you know, 105,000 words. So, that was rough. Not at all the way I normally do things, but it turned out very well. But most of my ideas do come from a dream or a random daydream of something that I think would be very cool.

So, you tend to start with an image, then?

I do. I do start with it with an image, and then I kind of let it hang out in my head for six months and see what happens. And then I start writing.

Well, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline, or are you more of a let’s-start-writing-and-see-what happens? Again, with these Sleepwater books, but also, since they seem a little different more typically.

Mm-hmm. So, I don’t do detailed outlines at all. I’ve tried, hoping that that would solidify my writing process a little more, but I have realized that when I outline in detail, I get bored. It feels like I’ve already tried to figure out the whole story, and then I lose the excitement. The best part for me, where I have the most fun, is when I’m just writing, and I’m in the zone and I’m going, and all the pieces come together, just like…I don’t know, like machinery. It’s just so much fun to see the characters I thought would be one thing turn into something completely different and go down a path that I didn’t expect. I solve the mysteries that I create with the beginning as I’m writing them, so I never know what’s going to happen. But I…I probably right now, I’m somewhere in between, in the hybrid range. I will write beats for my books, and I definitely always do this for my ghostwriting work because it enables me to keep up my ridiculous speed with writing those projects. And that’s, you know, anywhere from four thousand to eight thousand words of just summary about the whole plot of the book, and it has all the big moments and big reveals in it. And then, I will just write from there, and I get to fill in all the extra space. And that is what works best for me, I’ve found.

Yeah, writing is weird because in a way it’s a very conscious act, you’re sitting there typing and putting words, and yet there’s this huge unconscious thing going on behind the words that are coming out, where your brain is…and you have no, you know, it’s inside your head, and yet somehow you’re not really part of the process, it feels like sometimes.

Yeah, it’s not…or it maybe is just not in my head at all. It’s just going through me. Yeah. And I, you know, a lot of the time I will go back and look at something I’ve written a week before and not recognize it. I think, “Wow, I don’t remember writing this part.”

Yeah. When I look back at all the stuff I’ve written, I sometimes have that…well, that’s not bad. I don’t actually remember doing it, but…

Right. It’s very strange. It’s very strange. I love it.

Well, I mentioned sitting and typing. Is that actually…I presume that’s how you work, and you’re not parchment under a tree with a quill pen.

Oh, no, no, no. I just got a brand-new desktop set-up in my office. We moved almost two months ago now from Vermont, so everything kind of had a major recall. But I sit and type. I do take breaks during the day, stand up, move around, get my body realigned after sitting.

Do you tend to just work at home, or do you ever go out for a change of scenery?

I just work at home. I used to be able…when I was in college, I could write anywhere as long as I had headphones in and…I don’t know if I’m entering more of that, like, writer’s stereotype, but I have gotten significantly more anxious and public as I’ve gotten older.

It’s not like people look over your shoulders and critique as you write…

I know. I know. I think maybe part of that is also because I type so fast. I had about 130 words a minute when I’m transcribing something or, you know, I don’t have to think. And so, I type faster than I think when I’m writing and that…I get weird about it when any of my family members say that they heard me typing. So, I stay home.

I think I was, at least I used to be, at about 110 words a minute, and it’s like…

Excellent!

…people look at you funny when you’re…

They do. They’re like, are you writing real words? Yes.

I wear out a lot of keyboards. My keyboards wear out really fast.

Yes.

I also learned on a manual typewriter, so I think I hit the keys harder than is actually required on a computer.

Yeah, that would do it.

Do you write sequentially then when you start writing, or is there a lot of threading and going back and filling in scenes and…

I have to write sequentially. The only time I didn’t do that was when I wrote Sleepwater Beat because I was pulling in things from the short story…

The short story, yeah.

Yeah. It was major surgery, and it was bloody and awful, and it took me two years. And I don’t like that. No, I start at the beginning, and I just keep going, and I push through. And sometimes, I’ll come across something where I realize that, “Oh, this tiny little detail needs to be changed in a thread from the beginning,” and I’ll go back. And, you know, that happens more towards the end, or I’ll make a note as I’m writing to go back and do that, and then afterwards with my own revisions and edits before it sees my editor. Yeah, I don’t think I could write non-sequentially now after having done it this way for so long this much.

Yeah. I’ve always been, start at the beginning and go to the end and then go back and fix things up. And speaking of that, what does your revision process look like? And do you use…do you have beta readers or even alpha readers at some point that pitch in? Or how does that all work for you? And when you are revising, what’s the kind of things you find yourself having to revise?

Ah-ha! Oh, all good questions. I think I’ll start with…when I’m sitting down and writing any book, the most important thing for me is to, of course, you don’t have a book until it’s finished, so, to get to the end, right? To just sit down and write all the way straight through and get to the end. And so, when I am writing, and I get in that zone, I don’t want to break it up by having to do research for like very, very specific things. I don’t want to break it up by having to go back into other books or other notes and find names or places. So I will leave those to-be-found details in brackets, so you know, typing away, typing away, “I don’t remember this character’s name!” and I’ll just put in brackets, Girl 1, or whatever. And that enables me to just get the words down so much faster. And I’ll leave notes for myself, too, comment in margins, to go back and check if this is a thing.

And then when I, you know, write the last words, then I go back through, and I search for all of the instances of brackets that I placed and then I will do the necessary research, and I will either make up names that I needed or places that I needed or go back and find them. And I’ll fill in all of those details at the end. That’s the first step for me. And that just makes the writing process for me so much faster, and also doesn’t break up my flow, you know, like, you’re getting really into an intense scene, but you can’t I can’t remember the name of that kind of gun that he had. So, you know, I don’t want to go fall through the rabbit hole of Internet research.

Yeah, that’s very easy to do.

Yeah, right. Yeah.

You’re looking up a type of gun, and the next thing you know, it’s 17th-century silver mining in Asia, and you don’t remember how you got there.

Exactly. Those are how the conversations with my dad go, like, just by speaking to each other, so I don’t need to see that when I’m writing. And I’ll go back through that, and then, while I’m reading through and filling in the brackets as well, I’m also doing as much proofreading as I can. And before I was writing full-time, I was editing full-time, and I’ve been doing that for…oh, I stopped last November, so, like seven years, eight years, and so, I would like to think that I catch most typos and reading errors, but I know that I absolutely do not catch all of them, so I do have an editor as well, and she is amazing.

And I do have a few alpha readers, I’ve got about four or five, who are completely thrilled to read anything and everything I send them, and with previous books, that has helped me stay excited and inspired and on track with the story, when I, you know, I hear, I get feedback from these operators, and they’re telling me like, “Oh, I love this part. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Like, I think it’s this, la la la.” And so, I sit in my corner and, you know, have an evil grin, just like, “Well, you have no idea what’s coming next. And I’m so excited.” And then that helps me stay there.

And I don’t…I don’t know if I’ve ever used beta readers, and I think that is because I trust my editor quite a bit, and my alpha readers give me enough feedback during the process that…I don’t know, I guess I just haven’t felt the need to use beta readers. I have used sensitivity readers, though, which is super-important for me, especially with Sleepwater Static, because I was…the closest I could write to anyone who experiences racial injustice in this country and anywhere in the world was from a white woman’s perspective, and it’s important to…sensitivity readers are so, so important to make sure that we’re not perpetuating harmful stereotypes and just getting things plain wrong. And that was an incredible experience, as well. And…as far as I heard from her, I hadn’t done anything wrong, so…

That’s always nice to hear.

Yes, it is. And then…that’s about it. You know, I have advance readers, when I’m, you know, before a book’s publication. And that’s the process.

I’ve never used beta readers, mainly because I just never had any to speak of. So, the first person that sees it usually is my editor. Which brings us to the editing process. What sorts of things do editors…do you use the same editor all the time and…because I presume you’re hiring an editor, since this is independently published.

Yes, I am.

Have you always used the same editor or have you use different editors? What sorts of things do they come back with you?

Yeah. I have had a few different editors. The editor I have now, she’s so phenomenal and the best I’ve ever had, and she edits like I did when I was editing, so…

One would think you’d like that.

Yes, absolutely. I’m a bit full of myself! But I, you know, some…the most that I get back beyond proofreading is usually, you know, like, “This sentence is extremely convoluted, and I have no idea what you were trying to say,” and those pop up every once in a while and, I, you know…

So, it’s more line editing then? You’re not getting big structural changes suggested or anything like that?

Correct. I have been fortunate enough to not have received suggestions for huge structural edits and changes. And I like to give credit for that to the fact that I spent so many years editing other people’s manuscripts, as well. And that helped me develop…you know, of course, along with all the reading for fun that I do…editing helped me develop kind of an ingrained understanding of, you know, genre elements and the rhythm and pacing of writing these stories. And so, I’ve never really had to do overhauls like that beyond my first book that had a lot of work put it through.

Yeah, I’ve done quite a bit of editing and mentoring and writer-in-residence kind of work, and I find that it’s really very easy to see flaws in other people’s work.

Oh, of course!

And it does help you eventually to pull yourself out of your own and say, “Well, you know, I did the same thing here.” And actually one of the things of being, like, a writer in residence, I’ll tell people that you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that, and then I think, “You know, if they look back in that book I wrote, I’m pretty sure I did that.”

Whoops! Yeah.

But it is very helpful, I find.

Yes, absolutely.

Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so it’s time for the…more reverb!…big philosophical questions, which is…I don’t know how big they are or how philosophical they are, but basically, it boils down to why. Why do you write this stuff? Why do you write at all? Why do you write this stuff, this kind of fantastical stuff? And why do you think anybody does? Why do we tell stories? So, kind of three questions, I guess.

Excellent. Yes. So, why do I write? It’s gotten to the point now where I write because I literally have to. If I go longer than, you know, thirty-six hours without writing any fiction at all, I get itchy and sweaty and irritable.

So, it’s an addiction.

It is, and, you know, I will openly admit it. It is the best addiction I’ve had. We’re good to go. But yeah, no, it is. My husband has had commented multiple times, if I’m having a rough day, he’ll ask me, “Have you written today?” And more often than not, the answer is no. So, I’ve learned just to accept the fact that I can’t take too much time away from writing. It’s just become so much of a part of me. I am so fortunate enough to be able to say that my greatest passion is now my full-time job. And that’s incredible.

So, why do I write what I write? And I’ll go ahead and say this, you know, what I write being dark fiction in general, just dark stuff. And, you know, I was asked, someone asked me a while ago if writing what I write is a way for me to process my own past pain or get a better understanding of certain concepts or ideas about the world. And I realized, it was a great realization to have, in trying to answer these questions, that I don’t…like, I do write for me physically, like I have to, it is an addiction, but the content that I write isn’t for me in regards to, you know, working through past pain or trauma or realizations. It’s cathartic, but it’s not therapeutic, I guess I could say. But I do write with the intention, every single time, of helping other people access their ability to work through their own stuff and to better understand concepts and ideas that they may be struggling with and to frame a lot of topics and subjects and issues, a lot of social issues, to frame them in a way that is more accessible to other people who may not otherwise have been open to discussing or reading or even thinking about these things, or who may have never even had the opportunity to consider these discussions from a different perspective or a different angle. So, I find that particularly easy to do in dark fiction because I can really take the characters and the story and the readers just down. And maybe that’s cruel of me, but I know that I like that to see that as a reader, and I know I’m not the only one.

Well, certainly not, because you have lots of readers, so…

Right. Yeah. So, that’s great. So, I write the way I enjoy, as well, and I write to go really, really into those deep, deep, dark places to then better illuminate, you know, the hope and the possibility and potential for more, and, you know, oh, one of my firm beliefs in my own life and in writing being that our mistakes and the poor decisions that we make in life don’t define who we are or what we’re capable of becoming after the fact. So that’s why I write these things and…yeah, why does anyone write?

Why do human beings do this?

Yeah. Because it’s so much fun. I mean, that’s just how we learn about the world, right? That’s how it’s always been for humans, learning about the world and teaching each other about the world through story and then, you know, connecting with each other. It’s…sometimes it feels a lot easier and even potentially a lot more fulfilling to connect with characters than with real people. And I think that’s probably the end of my answer. To learn about the world and each other and to connect and to form those bonds and understand one another. Story is completely universal. Maybe not the content or the characters, where it goes, but telling story. That applies to everyone.

Seems like a good answer to me. Well, we’ll just wrap up here with what are you working on now? You mentioned this, the new urban-fantasy, dark urban-fantasy series. 

Yes. The Witching Vault is book one of Accessory to Magic. That’ll be out fairly soon. A couple of months, I think.

And anything else to mention?

Yeah, I’ll have another, first in at a super, very, very dark, darker than anything I’ve ever done, LGBTQ+ dark-fantasy theories. That’s Imlach Fractured. It’s the first book in Vessel Broken, and that is…oh, I’m working on two very different projects, but that one is dark and gruesome and just has a huge occult influence, and I’m so excited about it. That is slated to be out at the end of November this year.

And where can people find your online, so they can keep up with all of this stuff that you’re doing?

Of course, my website is kathrinhutsonfiction.com.

You should probably spell your name because it’s…

Yes, it is very different. That’s K-A-T-H-R-I-N H-U-T-S-O-N fiction, dot com. If there are E’s in there at all, it’s wrong. And I am probably the most active on Facebook, my author page on Facebook. My author page there is @KathrinHutsonFiction, and I’m also @KathrinHutsonFiction on Instagram and on Twitter as @ExquisitelyDark.

Seems appropriate. All right, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Kathrin. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I sure did. Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 62: Kate Elliott

An hour-long-plus conversation with Kate Elliott, author of Unconquerable Sun, “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” and many others, including the Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy with lawyer-dinosaurs, Cold Magic, and sequels, the science fiction novels of the Jaran, the YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic fantasy Crossroads Trilogy,

Websites
www.kateelliott.com
imakeupworlds.com

Twitter
@KateElliottSFF

Kate Elliott’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by April Quintanilla

Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. Her most recent is Unconquerable Sun, “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space.”

She is also known for her Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy with lawyer-dinosaurs, Cold Magic, and sequels, the science fiction novels of the Jaran and the YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic- fantasy Crossroads Trilogy, with giant justice eagles. Her particular focus is immersive world-building and centering women in epic stories of adventure and transformative cultural change.

She lives in Hawaii, where she paddles outrigger canoes and spoils her schnauzer.

So, Kate, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Ed, thank you so much. I want to say that at the moment, the usual club outrigger canoe practice has been cancelled or suspended, I’ll say, due to the pandemic. So, that’s the one thing that I’m not paddling my usual six-man six-feet canoe three to four times a week.

Well, here in the middle of the continent, we don’t have a lot of that anyway. So, I hadn’t really noticed that that was one of the things that had been cancelled. Well, we have met because we’ve both been published by DAW and we met at one of the lovely DAW dinners. For your DAW books is Sheila your editor, Sheila Gilbert?

Yes, yeah.

And she’s mine, as well. So, we share that.

She’s a fantastic editor.

Yes, she certainly is. So, I’m going to start, as I always do, by taking you—this has become a cliche on the program, “back into the mists of time,z’ and I’m going to put reverb on it. One of these days, I’m going to do that, “back into the mists of time,” to find out…well, I know from your little bio that you’ve been writing since you were very young. So, how did you get interested in writing and…well, reading and writing and all that kind of stuff? What led you down the garden path to being a writer?

You know, this is the big question, isn’t it? And I think there’s an even deeper question that goes even below that, which is like, why do human beings create at all? What is the, let’s say, the evolutionary advantage of the way our minds work, which is sometimes in amazing ways and sometimes it really debilitating ways. I think they’re all kind of linked. Why? I guess I would say is that I believe that human beings, part of what makes us who we are, is pattern making and creativity. And there would be survival mechanism in that, in, like, seeing that we could eat this food, right, or seeing that if these seeds dropped here, in the next season, when I came back, there was stuff here I could eat. So, that then develops to language and to all the other ways that we think about, not just art, but about science and about religion, all the ways that we understand the world.

So really, the question I would ask is, why do some people not feel they’re creative, which to me is a tragedy and something I think that is imposed on people from the outside, not part of who people are, really, kind of at root? But then, the other question is, why did I decide to write? Why did I want to tell stories as opposed to designing clothes or playing music or woodworking and building furniture? And I don’t know. I could say maybe why I didn’t do some of the other things. So, it’s easier to define that negatively, in a way. But I just know, from a very early age, I liked to draw maps, and I liked to draw large underground domiciles where, you know, where thousands of people were living. And I was doing that at age 10, 11. I don’t know why. It just intrigued me. I would tape pieces of paper together and then draw these just huge architectural things that had nothing to do with how anything would really be built. But I enjoyed it. And that went to maps, and then I guess, partly because I grew up in rural Oregon and I loved being outdoors, but it was also kind of boring. So, when I started reading science fiction and fantasy, then, of course, as a teenager, I was like, “Oh, I want to live science fiction and fantasy.” And since I couldn’t figure out a portal, I couldn’t figure out where the portal was to that other world that I really wanted to be in, the best portal I had was to write stories.

Yeah, kids in stories are always stumbling these things, and I was never able to find one either. It seemed totally unfair.

I know, right?

My wardrobe, I didn’t have a wardrobe, but my closet didn’t lead anywhere. And, you know, there wasn’t any hole in the backyard that led to the world of Óg or whatever. Yeah, it’s very unfair. And tornadoes are a terrible means of transportation.

I haven’t, yeah. I’ve actually not experienced a tornado yet. Who knows? But I would like one, like, if I would go out hiking…my family camped a lot when I was a kid. We would go on camping trips…and I would always look for those two trees growing close together whose branches intertwine, and I would say, “Maybe this is the one. I’ll step through, and it will be the portal into that other world.” But, yeah.

What were some of the books that kind of woke you up to science fiction and fantasy when you started reading them?

The earliest chapter books I remember reading are ones…they were these editions of books that my father had read as a child that we still had, and they were by Thornton Burgess, the Mother West Wind stories. And most people my age aren’t aware of them. And I only knew them because they were in the house. And I think today he’s probably mostly forgotten. But back in the day, when my dad was young, these were stories written, set in the…I can’t even remember…the Wild Woods. Anyway, they were in the woods, and everything was anthropomorphized, so that Mother West Wind was…she had thoughts, and she had the merry little breezes, and then all the animals, and they all had these little adventures. And I read those obsessively when I was very, very young. And I always feel like they were my gateway into this idea that there could be this fantastic other world of things that I wasn’t aware of.

And from there, I would say, I read Scholastic Book Fair books that had fantasy in them or science fiction. I couldn’t give you any particular titles now. The big one for me was reading Lord of the Rings at 13, and that kind of kicked me onto the path that I then never left. Also, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, that was…those were two in what was then called junior high school, now would be called middle school. And then, you know, in high school, I began to read Le Guin and just…

Yeah, I think we’re almost exactly the same age, and that’s a very familiar set of books and pathway. It’s almost the same ages at which I was reading those things, as well.

Yeah.

But you started writing stories, as well, very early. Did you share those stories with other people, or was it just kind of a solitary thing you did to entertain yourself?

Um, when I was in ninth grade, I think it was, my best friend and I wrote kind of a shared set of stories. We drew a map and then wrote a shared set of stories. And interestingly, that set of stories, there were these two main characters, one was hers and one was mine, and they were both men. And that’s like…because when I was 14, that’s who was in those stories. So, if you were going to write a fantasy story, it had to be about men. But by the next year, I had switched over and started writing stories about women. And I wrote a lot in high school, and I’m not sure that anybody read it.

I always ask that question because I wrote in high school, three novels in high school, and I did share them with my classmates, and it was one of the things that actually told me maybe I could tell stories. So, I always like to ask that question, and I get differing answers from different authors. Some people say, “Oh, I would never have shared anything at that level.” Have you…well, OK, here’s another question. Have you shared it since? Has anybody read your juvenilia?

No, not a chance. Not a chance. Although I have recently…I’m actually really intrigued that you shared the books with your friends, which I think is fantastic. And they read them all, and they asked for more and wanted to read the next one?

Yeah. Well, they weren’t a series, but I had a teacher—I had more than one teacher!—but I had one particular teacher, we were required to keep a writing book, so you had to write a page of something every day. And most kids were copying stuff or, you know, not doing much with it. But I started writing The Golden Sword when I was 14 years old, and it was only for one semester that we had that class. And it’s all dated in the book I was writing it. And so, you get to December and the dates at the top stop, but the story just keeps going because I was way ahead and going on to the end. And I learned to type in Grade 10, and as soon as I learned to type—I was just dying to learn to type—and as soon as I learnt how to type, I would type these things up, and I bound them up, and I handed them out to my classmates. And people really seemed to enjoy them. So, it was kind of a thing for me to kind of help point me in the direction of being a writer.

That’s…I just think that’s fantastic. I also remember learning to type in high school and how great it was because I could type so fast. You know, it’s interesting. I didn’t share as much. I wouldn’t have shared it. I think a lot of it was too personal to me. I did find, some years ago, I hunted down and found the journal I kept when I was 16, which was not a normal journal because it was me pretending to be a person going…I had drawn this map, it was like my special map, my, like, the map that the portal would take me to, right?. And then this journal was me going to different places on the map and describing them and describing the journey, and then whatever else a 16-year-old would put in there. And before I wrote Court of Fives, or maybe in the early stages of writing Court of Fives, which of course is a young adult novel, I thought, “Oh, you know what? I’m going to go back and see if I can gain some inspiration and insight into my 16-year-old self.” I could not get through two pages of it, not because it was badly written, but because I was 16 when I wrote it. And it wasn’t bad. I’m not saying that in any way to criticize myself, but I was just like, “Whoa, whoa, man!” That mindset was, like, so much for me. It was so intense. But it was interesting to realize how intense being a teenager is.

As they say, the past is a different country, and it’s true of your own past as well as some of the world’s past, I think.

Well, I could see me. I mean, it was me. I recognized me. And I recognized things that are very much still me in it. But, wow. Yeah. It was enlightening. And then, another thing that happened recently is…my first full novel, I wrote in high school, and I was talking to my editor about it, and she said, “Oh, you should put that up on Wattpad.” So, I again dug down, down deep, deep, and I found it. And I’ve been looking at it and thinking, “I wonder if this would be worth cleaning up a little and putting on Wattpad just for the fun of it.”

It’s funny you should say that because I’ve been looking at my magnum opus from high school, which I wrote when I was sixteen.

Which is called?

Slavers of Thok.

Oh, wow.

It’s a big fantasy novel. It has a map because, of course, as you know very well, maps are essential to a true fantasy novel.

Yeah.

With really terrible place names. And I typed it, so I was able to do an optical character recognition, kind of, because my ribbon was dim in a lot of places, and I have been thinking the same thing. I might just throw it up somewhere and see what comes of it. It’s not horrible in some places. It’s a pretty good story, actually. So, we’ll see.

I think we’re probably better. I didn’t actually start reading mine. I just found it. And there was a lot of it, single-spaced on legal-size paper. A lot of it. Both sides. So, but yeah, I, I think we’re better, and also inexperienced, as teenage writers, better than we perhaps think we are and not as good as we think we are. So, it kind of goes hand in hand, right?

I think that describes it exactly. So, you left Oregon to go to university in California, I believe.

Ed, I have to say, sorry, it’s Oregon.

So, what am I saying?

You’re saying OreGON.

Oh, sorry.

Sorry. No, no, I don’t…I hate to be pedantic about it, but…

No, no. It’s hilarious, because I live in Saskatchewan and nobody can pronounce Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan.

So, people say SaskatcheWAN, just like I’m saying, OreGON. Oregon. There you go.

Oregon. Perfect. It’s just kind of like….yeah.

And the other one is Newfoundland. NewfoundLAND. You have to emphasize the land. So, yeah, there’s a lot of things like that. OK, Oregon. So, you left Oregon and went to California. What did you study in college? Did you study writing or something completely different?

Well, college was strange for me. I went to Mills College in Oakland, California. I only actually went there two years. My senior year in high school, I took enough college class credit classes at the local community college that I came in with a full year already. And then I went one year to Mills, and I didn’t love it. So, the next year I did my, what was by then my junior year, abroad at the University of Wales in Wales, at Bangor, Wales. Then I worked for a year at the BBC in the radio division on a student work visa. And then I came back and finished my degree at Mills. So, I had kind of an eclectic…I did some history, I did some anthropology, and I ended up majoring in English, mostly because that was what I had enough credits to do. So…and I did get a…I think I got like a minor or a…I didn’t call it a minor, but a minor in creative writing, which frankly was kind of a waste of time.

That was my next question.

Well, they were so full of, you know, why are…these were literally the people saying to me, “Why are you writing science fiction and fantasy? You should be writing real literature.” So, it wasn’t…you know, it’s just not useful to take courses from people like that.

I’ve asked that question of a lot of the writers I’ve interviewed, and of those who have taken formal writing classes, I would say there are more that say that than say that they were really helpful to them, which I always find interesting.

Well, I think it could have been helpful if people hadn’t been so dismissive of science fiction and fantasy.

Now, I also wanted to mention, because I’ve seen, in things I’ve read about you, that you were active in Society for Creative Anachronism, and I dabbled in that. But it not very active where I am here now. And that’s where you met your husband, isn’t it?

Well, I’m no longer married, but yeah, yeah. But what I loved about the SCA, I wasn’t that interested in the re-creation aspects. I’m an athlete. So, I was really what they called in the ACA in those days, they called a stick jock. I just went there to fight, to put on armor and fight, so that’s what…I did that, and actually, that was pretty great. And it was useful as a fantasy writer, not because we were actually, you know…well, I did get a broken arm once…but it was useful because it gave me a sense of how it feels to have people around you, how it feels to be lying wounded on a battlefield, not that I was really wounded, but how space worked, the physical function of space, people nearby, people far away, what you could hear, what the sun might feel like, you know, how skirmishes might act, how they would run. So, that was useful information for me to have, especially when I wrote Crown of Stars, which is a seven-volume epic fantasy series set in a…well, it’s really inspired by early medieval Germany. So, smaller units, you didn’t have big armies. And I really got a lot of use out of that, in that series, of that experience of fighting in the SCA. So, I’m glad I did it.

Has the history and anthropology you studied also come in useful in your writing? I would expect they would.

Well, I still read a lot of…I mean, history is my main reading. The thing I read most is history. My dad was a history teacher, and so I’m very much still reading history and anthropology. I consider myself still a student of it, I guess I would say.

And that figures into your worldbuilding and everything?

Oh, absolutely.

Well, let’s talk about how you broke in, then. How did you go from being, you know, writing, but then writing professionally? How did that all work for you?

So, you know, when I broke in back in the day, things were very different. Social media didn’t exist. The Internet was in it…even in its early days, you could get together. I got on, like, bulletin boards like Genie, back in the late eighties. And it was very much a query culture. You would write to agents and hope someone would want to represent you, and then they would send, you know, your work to editors. Some publishers still had slush piles. So, I did what a lot of people did. I wrote around until I finally got an agent who was willing to represent me and then they eventually sold something of mine, and then it just proceeded from there. I later switched agents. So…does that explain enough? I don’t know that it’s a particularly relevant story in terms of what people can know today. It just…you just have to be persistent.

Yeah. And I’m from the same era, but I didn’t break in as early as you did, but I was certainly going through that whole process as well. So, yeah,

And I also wanted to say that I didn’t come up come in through the science fiction/fantasy community. I know a fair number of people who were fans first, which is another way. I mean, there’s no, like…there is no one right way or better way to do it. So, I know people who came in through fandom. And they were in fandom and then they got published. And that’s another way to do it. I’d never attended a science fiction/fantasy convention until after I was published. So, they weren’t anything I really knew about until then.

We didn’t have a lot of them around Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I was growing up. I think the first one I was at was when WorldCon was in Winnipeg. That was the first major convention I was at.

Yeah, yeah. So, I didn’t…I just wasn’t aware of things like that. And I was probably a little too reserved to ever have gone just on my own anyway.

Well, let’s talk about your making of books, which is what this podcast is about. And also, you know, you already mentioned that everybody does it differently. And that’s one thing I’ve certainly found out in talking to…I think you’ll be like my sixtieth author or something like that I’ve interviewed.

Wow.

Everybody does it differently. But let’s find out how you do it, and we’ll focus on Unconquerable Sun, which is the new one. And I’ve delved into it. I haven’t finished it, which is fine because I’m going to get you to give a synopsis of it without giving any spoilers.

Well, I just say what the pitch is, which is it is gender-bent Alexander the Great in space.

That’s pretty much a perfect elevator pitch.

It is. And I’m not even good at elevator pitches, but that is literally what it is. So, the first book is what I would call young Alexander. So, it takes place in a set period of time. It takes place…there’s an opening sequence of things and then a time skip, and then the rest of the book takes place in about two weeks. Based on our understanding of a week, not on theirs. Right?

That’s a fast pace.

Yeah.

For a big space-opera type story.

Yeah. So, it’s…yeah. I’m not good at describing plots, that’s why I…

Well, I think the pitch does a good job of presenting an intriguing set-up, that’s for sure. And I have enjoyed what I’ve read of it, delving into it. How many…well, it’s obviously more than one book. How many books do you envision in this?

Well, I do want to say that the first book is a complete story. It doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger, it’s a complete story. Which I did on purpose because I think if one is going to use…I’ve written…let me just backtrack a moment to say that I have, of course, written trilogies that had cliff-hangers at the end of every volume. And with this one, I wanted to try to give people the chance to read a book, feel really satisfied at the end that they had read a complete story, things had been resolved, but that there were other threads now that they would want to follow. And that was my intention all along with book one, and that’s why I call it Young Alexander, because it takes place at what would have been the Court of Macedon, more or less. Yeah. So…where were we going with this question?

How many books do you envision eventually?

A trilogy.

Trilogy.

Yeah.

All right, so we have our elevator pitch here, which almost sounds like the idea that came to you to start this whole process. But what was the genesis of this and the kernel that this grew from? And is that typical of the way that you start growing stories? 

It isn’t, because actually, it did kind of come from the, “What if I did gender-bend Alexander the Great in space?” And normally, my stories start with, like, an image or a moment, as if almost as if seen in a motion-picture sense. So, for example, Crown of Stars, which is seven volumes, the seed of the idea for that was me, in my head, seeing a young man who’s walking between the village where he was born and grew up, as far as he knows, walking over…it’s on the ocean, and he’s walking up and over a ridge pathway that leads, on the other side of the ridge, to a monastery, where he’s taking something for the monks that his aunt is sending him with. And as he’s walking up over them, he sees this massive storm coming in, way too fast, off the sea, and as it overtakes him on the ridge, a woman, a middle-aged woman wearing battered armor, with a sword, rides out of the storm toward him. That’s the beginning of that book. That’s the seed image of that book. Everything else grows out of that.

Or Cold Magic, the Spirit Walker trilogy, the first book is called Cold Magic. This is the afro-Celtic post-Roman lawyer-dinosaur book. So with that one, it’s similar, in the sense that, in my mind, I saw these two young women sitting in a paned, p.a.n.e.d,  like windowpane, window seat, looking out over a courtyard as a carriage arrives, and they know that something unpleasant or something that means something bad for them…they have a bad feeling about that carriage and what or who is coming in with that carriage. So that again…and that’s the whole seed of that story. And in both of those cases, what you see is, you have a person with something about to meet them. You know, there’s your conflict, right?

And then, but also in my mind’s eye, what I see also tells me something about the kind of the general historical era it’s going to be in. So, on the one hand, the armor she’s wearing is chainmail, it’s not plate. So now we’re going earlier, and it’s there’s a medieval sense because there’s a monastery. So, now I know that I’m in a more early medieval period. And the other one there is a carriage and the way they’re dressed, and I could see that it was kind of a late 18th-, early 19th-century setting.

But with gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, that’s a very concept-driven idea. And I’m not, in that sense, concept driven. I’m more like emotional-moment, meeting-a-landscape, meeting-a-conflict driven. That’s where most of my stories come out of. So, for me, with that concept—and there’s, in a way, more to it than that, but I won’t…you know, I had just written Court of…well, first of all, I have a son named Alexander, you know, so I’ve been interested in the story. And he is named after Alexander the Great. And so, I’ve been interested in the story of Alexander the Great for a long time, just in general. But then when I wrote the young adult fantasy trilogy, Court of Fives, that…I drew a lot of inspiration from the Hellenistic-era Egypt, in which people from Macedonia, Macedonians, came and established themselves as the rulers of Egypt over this large indigenous population. And I…and the last Ptolemaic, the last of those rulers, was Cleopatra, who we…she was actually the seventh Cleopatra of that lineage, but she’s the Cleopatra we all know, right?

So, writing that…and I did so much reading about the Hellenistic era, which is that period…it’s the period basically from Alexander to Cleopatra. And that’s called the Hellenistic period, when the Hellenic, the Greek, culture was spread throughout the Mediterranean. And it was kind of, it was kind of the multinational American pop Hollywood culture of its day. That’s a terrible, terrible simplification, but there’s a similar sense. So…and I think that kind of rolled me toward gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, if you see what I mean.

But conceptually, what I had to do then was to say, “OK, I’m going to do it like this. I want to do this concept. But now, what do I want it to mean? What do I want to do with that concept?” And that’s, for me, a different direction to build a universe from than what I’m used to, because in the other cases it’s more like, “Oh, I see, I’m in this place already. Now I need to discover it by writing it and deciding what aspects I want to see. And where does this road go to, right?” But in this case, I could have done anything because I didn’t have that visual seed image already in it.

So, what was your approach to planning it out, and how does that match up with the usual approach? Do you do a lot of outlining, or how does that work for you?

Well, I’m not really a…I outline, and I don’t outline. So, I kind of do both. But I can actually. I can. So, what I had to do was to ask myself specific questions. And there’s two main questions I had to ask. So, the first one is, if I’m going to make the Alexander character a woman, the first question I have to ask myself is, “How does this princess…?” Well, actually, let me step back to a third question. So, the first thing I have to do is I have to say, “OK, Alexander the Great as a story only works if I have a kind of a monarchy, and I have a lot of war.” So, either you’re going to want to write that story or not, right? And, you know, I get tired of writing about monarchies. I’ve written stories that weren’t about monarchies because I was like, “I’m done with writing about monarchy.” So, that was partly an issue for me. It was like, “Do I really want to go back to…do I really want to do this again?” But I really wanted to do it. I really loved the concept. So, that was my first thing, was to accept that it’s not that story if you don’t have those things. So…do you see what I’m saying? It’s like, “I want to write a Sherlock Holmes story, but he doesn’t solve any of the mysteries.” Then it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story.

Yeah, exactly.

Or if he’s super well-adjusted about everything, well, then it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes story, you know, and he doesn’t have his sidekick, Watson. Well, I mean, part of that…that story is based also on their relationship. So, when you’re taking something, a concept like that, that has a relationship to things that readers know, but that, you know, there’s a—for me, and I’m not saying anybody has to do this—but for me, there is…I have to decide what essential things are absolutely necessary to make it still that story or to be a Sherlock Holmes retelling, right? What do I have to have for that? So, what would I have to have for it to be an Alexander the Great retelling? So, that was stage one.

Stage two was, “What am I going to do with the princess?” Is she going to be the…because, you know, Macedon, like the ancient Greece of its time, was a patriarchal society, where men ruled. Now, women had more scope, in Macedon especially, and women had more scope in the Hellenistic era. It’s quite interesting. And for those who are interested in this issue, please read Elizabeth Carney. I highly recommend her book, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. It’s an easy read. She really knows her stuff.

I’ll put a link to it in the transcript when I do this.

Yeah, do. Because there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on than one is generally taught in school and then, you know, and the stereotype of what it was like. But nevertheless, it was a patriarchal society. So, this question two is, “Is she the scrappy princess who proves that she’s worth ruling even though she has to fight against misogyny and sexism?” Or…one of the most important things about the story of Alexander is that he was raised as heir in a society where it was absolutely assumed that he was worthy of being heir, right? He had to prove his competency to lead troops in battle because it was, Macedonia, at that time, was very focused on war. The reason that Alexander’s father, Philip, became king was because his older brother died with a, like, a three-year-old son, and a three-year-old son can’t lead an army. So, Philip became king.

And this is actually common. And this is true in, like, Anglo-Saxon England as well. Alfred the Great, whom many of us have heard of, became King because he was like the fifth or sixth of six brothers. And the other ones all died one by one, killed in wars with the Vikings. And any children they left were too young to lead armies. And so, it passed down the brother line, not father-to-son line. And that’s an important difference in how rulership is seen. So…and that’s where the history comes in useful, right/ Just to know that that exists, that it doesn’t have to go father to infant son. It can go father to brother, or it can go adult to adult.

But anyway, one of the things about Alexander—sorry I’m so geeky about history—but one of the things about Alexander is he was made for the moment, everything about his life, who he was, his capabilities, made him for that moment. He didn’t make that moment. He was there, the right person at the right time. And when I looked at the story, I thought, “You know, if the scrappy princess fights against sexism to prove her worth, it’s not that story anymore, is it?” So, that was the first thing, the first decision, the first worldbuilding thing that fell into place was, it’s absolutely commonplace. They don’t care in this society. Gender doesn’t matter in that sense.

So…and, in fact, I swap a lot of, you know, I spin a lot of gender. So, the Phillip character is…so the Alexander character’s name Sun, like the sun in the Sky, and her mother, Eirini, which means peace, by the way, it’s an ironic name, is the Philip analogue. So…but Eirini in the book has three older brothers. And, in fact, Philip had two older brothers and they had a sister, these three brothers. So that’s kind of borrowed from history, as well. And they were all…they all ruled before her but were killed in war, and it came to her down that line. So, deciding that that aspect of it was that rulership wasn’t based on gender, it wasn’t that only women ruled or only men ruled, it was, you know, the most competent person ruled if they were part of the royal house. So, that made that decision for me.

And then, the third question I asked myself was, “Am I going to create a setting, a space opera setting, that is completely unattached to Earth?” It’s kind of like Star Wars, right? There’s nothing in Star—I mean, except for the fact that it’s written by us and we see it—it’s not—there’s no references to Earth that I know of in the Star Wars universe.

No.

So, I could either do that, or I could do that thing where there are connections to Earth. And for my own purposes, mostly because, in large part because I thought it would be more fun because I really like Easter eggs and stories, I decided to go for a connection with Earth and then I had to decide how I wanted that connection to be. Did I want it to be a close connection or a very, very distant connection? And my decision was to make, to set this, in the far, far future, very far away, you know, an unfathomable distance away, that the people, that humans, had settled it via generation ships and that the separation between this place, where they have spread out now into a rich network of worlds, their relationship to Earth is that for them, Earth is the mythic celestial empire. And their understanding…and because the archives that came on the ships, this isn’t really a spoiler, it’s referenced, people reference it, kind of, in the story, but it’s never explained because they wouldn’t think to explain it. So, all the archives that came with the ships were contaminated and broken down.

So, it’s basically, when we look at ancient Sumeria or when we look at the Harapan civilizations of the Indus Valley of four, five, six thousand years ago, we have fragments, and we try to build an understanding of their past by looking at these fragments and by filtering them through our understanding. And that was the core worldbuilding principle I chose to use, which is they have fragments of the past, but they don’t even know Earth is…they wouldn’t even call Earth, Earth. They call it the Celestial Empire, you know, the world…so, they have fragments of it, and how they put that together into their own society is the way…is the foundation on which I built the world. And I did it partly for the Easter eggs, partly so I could use familiar names and not have to use made-up names. And then, it just allows me to play a lot…both with expectations, it allows me to make references that the reader will get, but that the people in the world don’t know is a reference to that thing. It just allows me…it allowed me a lot of leeway to make commentary and also to have fun. And I think space opera should be fun.

I agree. Did you then…doing all this worldbuilding, at what point does the actual plotting come in? Do you work out a detailed plot, or do you write and then use the revision to pull everything together?

Well, again, this story is a little different because it comes with a plot. And it’s not that I use that plot exactly. But I drew heavily, heavily from the actual history of Alexander the Great. And I changed things up and moved stuff around, and that’s ongoing as I work on the subsequent books, right?

But, for example, and this, again, isn’t really a spoiler, the plot kind of works outward. Like, the first scene I specifically had in mind that I knew I wanted to use is a famous incident from the life of Alexander when he was…he would have been, I guess, at this point, 20…his father, Philip—Philip had like, I don’t know, six, seven wives. Not—and in those days, the king would marry for alliances, alliance purposes, and so you could, you would have more than one wife at once, it just wasn’t the same concept of what marriage was for—but his father, having…Philip was actually an amazing character who accomplished an incredible amount, which I won’t go into here, but he kind of had a festival celebrating himself. He was not a man of small ego. He had a festival celebrating himself, at which he also married Alexander’s full sister—so Alexander had one full sister, Cleopatra—he married Cleopatra to…their mother, Alexander and Cleopatra’s mother, was the famous Olympias. She had two children by Philip. Her brother was king of Epirus, which was a neighboring kingdom. And that’s…you used alliances to link those things…so, Philip had a festival to celebrate himself and to marry his daughter, Cleopatra, to her uncle. Because that’s what you did in those days and…

No, I’m wrong. Never mind. OK. Sorry, that’s a different episode. Let me step back. Let me step back a moment. I’m still with the banquet. No, it’s because what I’m writing right now has me in that headspace. This is, see, this is the difficulty of writing history.

OK, when Alexander was 18, move back two years…I knew I was on the right road when I talked about the six wives. Anyway, Phillip had married all these women for alliance purposes, and now he’s in his mid-forties or late forties, and he marries a young Macedonian—oh, and all the wives he had married were not Macedonian. They were Illyrian. They were Epirote, like Olympias. They were…I think there was one from Thalassia. I don’t know. Anyway. So, but they were alliance marriages, right? And now he’s older, and he decides to…evidently he actually fell in love with this young, probably 18, 17, 18-year-old, young Macedonian woman who was highborn and whose uncle was one of Philip’s companions, one of his intimate friends who were his supporters and the people he trusted most, right? So, this man was her guardian. And he, Philip, decided to marry her to, to marry Cleopatra, which angered Alexander’s mother, because, you know, there’s always more rivals, right? Especially if there’s someone in court who can be pushing for this woman. And Philip is still young at this point, mid-forties was still, he wasn’t an old man, he was still young. There was no reason to think he could live easily another twenty years as long as he didn’t die in battle or whatever, right?

So, at the banquet, which Olympias did not attend because of the insult to her, even though she was the fourth of six wives, at the banquet, everyone got drunk. And there were no women at the banquet, I should say. Besides the fact Olympias wasn’t at the palace, there were no women at these banquets. Everyone gets drunk, and the uncle of the new bride stands up. So, remember, Alexander’s mother is Epirote. So, she’s not Macedonian. She’s Epirote, from the neighboring kingdom.

The uncle of the bride, the young bride, stands up and toasts her and says, “Now, at last, we can have a true Macedonian heir.” Right? Well, Alexander was quick to take offense to this. He was drunk and he was eighteen. He jumps up, and he threw a cup at this man, right? And hit him in the head, which, of course, is a horrible, horrible insult in guest terms since Philip was hosting the party. So, Philip, who was also drunk, jumps up and he’s like…I won’t use bad words…anyway, he uses the equivalent of an “eff you, you!” to his own son, right? Grabs a spear and makes to throw the spear at his own son, who has already proven himself in battle at this point, by the way, as a competent war leader. But he trips and falls, and it all goes…and then Alexander says something like, “Well, look, there’s the man who says he’s going to conquer Asia. He can’t even stand upright, you know, because he’s so drunk.” So, then Alexander leaves court for a while, while things cool off, you know. But, of course… and then, the new wife gives birth to a girl baby. So, Alexander comes back, right? So, we’re all good, right. Anyway, that scene is so great on so many levels. That’s the scene, like, that I built the book out from.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you…I think you’ve said somewhere that you think you’re a fairly slow writer? Do you write with parchment under a tree somewhere or do you go out, do you write in your own office? How do you like to work?

Oh, I write in my own office. I’m fortunate. A back…I know this happened…this was like, a thousand years ago, I also would sometimes go to, like, the library or to the coffee shop to work for a change of scene.

I work in coffee shops. Well, not right now, but I work in the coffee shops some myself.

Sometimes I just want the change, you know, to kind of shake things up a bit. I have a book that I mostly wrote at the library because I found that if I was at home, I wasn’t working on it. But if I went to the library—and this was back when the library, it was hard, it was so hard to get on the Internet at the library, or maybe there were only, like, two limited slots, I think it was before wi-fi, that it was really great or before this whole library had…yeah. So, I was like, I had nothing to do but write there. But yeah, I work at home.

Do you work sequentially, just start the beginning and write to the end of the story, or do you do it scenes and then stitch them together later? How does that work for you?

I am a sequential writer. I know people who stitch, which I find fascinating. It’s not something I can do.

Me, either. So, I always ask.

No, but I know people who do it, who will, like, write out of order. Katherine Kerr, for example, who wrote the Deverry series. She writes scenes…well, you should ask her, but she just had a book out in February called Sword of Fire, a standalone Deverry novel, in fact.

She’d be a good guest. I should definitely reach out.

She would. She would be she’d be a great guest. But, yeah, I tend to…I both outline and don’t outline, so I’m kind of a major-points outliner. I need to know where my endpoint is. I know some of the major scenes along the way. And then…but then I discover. So, it’s kind of like islands, the Hawaiian Islands, for example. So, I can see the point I want to get to, but I’ve got to go underwater to get there. And underwater is the stuff I don’t quite know. But I’ve also…I said before that I’m an athlete. One of the interesting things to me about writing is, I’ve heard of people who can plot everything in their head before they start writing. But I have to…like, literally physically for me, I swear, the act of going from my head through my arms, through my hands onto that motion. I think that’s part of the process for me.

Yeah, I’m not much of an athlete, but I feel that myself as well. There’s something about the actual process of typing that makes it happen.

Yeah. There’s a kinesthetic thing there. And I feel like, if it doesn’t go through my hands, I’m losing a step.

And I have talked to, well, David Weber, for example, because of an accident, dictates most of his work. And I have done that once for a nonfiction book. And it wasn’t too bad for nonfiction, but I’m not sure, I don’t know what would come out if I tried to dictate a story. I may try it sometime just to see what happens.

I know Kevin Anderson dictates his first drafts, I believe.

Because to me, it seems like it’s just such a completely different way of translating what’s in your head into words than the typing process. So, anyway…

Yeah, yeah, yeah,

Everybody does it different, as we said. And that brings us around to the revision process. Once you have that draft…and I know you’ve written extensively about this on your website, so I should point people to that, that you have a three-part, the revision process in three parts on your website, which goes, I think it’s about eleven pages when I printed it out. But, in brief, what’s your revision process look like?

Well, one of the things that happens to me is, when I say I write sequentially, I do, but I don’t. Often, I will write forward to a certain point, and then I’ll say, “Ooh, wait, now I’ve moved myself off onto this other path. I need to go back and fix some of the things that were pointing me to a different path,” because I somehow just can’t, I can’t keep going till the end if stuff is pointing the wrong direction. So, I revise…it’s not that I…I try to write straight through to get a complete draft because I can’t really understand the book until I have a complete draft. But at the same time, often there’s a couple of pause points where I’ll often stop and go back and revise forward and then go on.

But my revision process has a lot to do with structure. I need my books to be structured, like, the framework needs to be right. So, the first thing I always do is, look, “Do these scenes lead to each other? Have I set up the…not the mystery, but I have set up like the character journey or the plot way that I’m presenting?” Like, I might be presenting ideas that and foreshadowing and set up, so that, you know, at three-quarters of the way through the book, the reader will suddenly go, “Oh, my gosh, these two people are going to meet, aren’t they?” Right? And so, that’s kind of my first thing, is to see, “Are these things set up the right way for the ending I want.” Once I’ve done that—and sometimes revising the structural aspects can be a major, major task. My novel Black Wolves, I must have restructured it three times before I settled on the structure that I wanted.

Then I’ll go back…and I would call that a structural revision…then I would go back and do large scene revisions, where I have to ask myself, “Does this scene even need to be here? What do I need this scene to do? Is it helping? Is it helping the larger story? Is it pointed the right way? Are they saying the things they need to say to get me…and, does it lead into the next scene? Maybe I need to flip two chapters because they make more sense.” So, that’s kind of that level. So, it’s kind of like the big level, the broad camera level, the widescreen level, and then the kind of the medium-screen level.

And then, after I’ve done that revision, then I’ll go in and kind of fine-tune the scenes, you know, “Can I cut out any of this dialogue? Can I collapse these two sentences into one? Can I cut out some details that I don’t need? What’s the one detail I need for this scene to pop out?”, you know.

And then the last revision stage for me would be what I would call line edit, where I would just go through and close read it, to cut what I can and to make sure that the language is good and the sentences make sense and, you know, are most felicitous to read.

I think you’ve said in something that I read that you do use beta readers. Where do you find those people, and what do they do for you?

Well…the beta readers I use are just, they’re really just other writers I know. So, I don’t, like, go looking for them. I just build…as I have built community, I have people who will beta read for me. Does that make sense?

Yeah.

And another thing that happens is that you may go through a phase where, like, I’ll have, like, you know, I might have one series that one person beta read a lot of it, but then, the next series they were doing stuff and couldn’t read it and so they haven’t read anything of some other series. So, sometimes it’s just…I go through phases where one person might do a lot of beta reading for me for a couple-of-years period and then maybe none after that, or, you know. So, it comes and goes, what people have time for. I’m the same. I’ve beta read for people as well and, you know. Like, right now, there’s a couple of people who I’ve done a fair bit of reading for. And in ten years, maybe I won’t have, you know, I mean, I just don’t know. It’s just kind of cyclical.

What do you find as a benefit of having beta readers?

The benefit of just, different eyes. They’re looking at it in a way I’m not. And one of the important things about beta readers…it’s useful to have what I call alpha readers, and those are people who just pat you on the back? Sometimes you just need someone to say, “Hey, this is great. Hey, can I have something more? Hey, I love this. Hey, keep writing!” if you maybe are struggling or aren’t sure. But a beta reader is supposed to be there to say, “Hey, I didn’t understand this.” I just read a science fiction novel, beta-read it, and I said, “I don’t understand how this spaceship is laid out. And a lot of the story, the story has a kind of a mystery-thriller aspect. And so, they would say, “Well, I went down to the X,” and I’m like, “I have no idea where the X is.” So, they ended up just dropping in early in. There’s this, like, three-sentence description, and it’s done in a way that the main character is talking about it or thinking about it, where it just lays out how the ship works, how the ship is laid out physically, in very clear terms. Because to the writer, he knew it in his head. He could see it. And he thought that his two words using, I think he used cylinder and torus, well, that should be enough. Right? And I’m like, “I don’t understand where I am.”

That’s actually something I often mention when I work with new writers is yes, you understand everything that’s going on. It’s all very clear in your head, but you have to put enough on the page for the reader to be able to make that jump and get some sense. Yeah, that’s a…it’s a common thing.

But I still struggle with that all the time. Every book.

Yeah, me too.

I mean, do we ever get this fully right?

And this is something…we’re getting up to the editor stage now, where you send it in, and the editor takes a look at it. That’s often something that I’ve found that the editor will come back and say, “You didn’t explain enough of this, or there’s a connection here that’s missing or something.” Do you get that same kind of feedback?

Well, that’s what a good editor does, right? So, there’s for me, a…I’m going to say, bad editor. I hate using that word bad…a bad editor wants you to write the story that they think it should be. A good editor says, “What’s the story you want to tell here? And how can we make sure that you’ve told that in the clearest, most engaging and most accessible way possible?” Accessible based on what your goal is. I mean, if your goal is to write a very dense inaccessible tome, that’s fine. I mean, seriously, that’s fine. But you want it to be that. So, a good editor will look at what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to get what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to dig into you and say, “Is this what you want? What are you trying to get here? How can you bring this out more clearly?”

And we mentioned that we both worked with Sheila Gilbert at DAW.

Yeah.

And one of the things I’d like to point out about editors, and Sheila is a great example, is they have seen so much. So many stories and so many ways of telling stories. They’ve seen all the mistakes and they….yeah. And I always really appreciate the feedback I get from Sheila for that reason.

Well, and the other thing about an experienced editor is that an experienced editor is patient for that reason, because they love books. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t love books. And they’re patient with your flaws. So, sometimes…some people will go over and over and over a book because they want to turn in something that could be immediately typeset. And sometimes it’s because they don’t want other people, other hands in it, which is fine, I mean, we all get to process how we do that. And others, I think it’s because they’re uncomfortable with people reading something flawed. But I’m a youngest child. I do not care. I want to ultimately write, I ultimately want published, the best book I can. And so, I’m happy for my editor to see it at a little earlier stage if that means that she can help me with some of the places that I might not be seeing, you know, and then that allows me to to get my fingers in there at an earlier stage when the narrative is more elastic, because I find for me that as I do each stage of revision, you know, down to the line edit, by the time at the line edit stage, things are less elastic now, I can’t make big changes without having to rip apart the whole book. But I can make larger changes earlier on. It’s not solidified yet. So, I would, you know, I would rather…I like getting feedback at that earlier stage and then in the other stages as well.

Well, we are kind of at the end of the time here. So, I do want to ask you…you kind of touched on part of what I usually ask at this point, why people create and write. You mentioned that right off the top. But to bring it down to you…and this is sort of in the bio, breathing and writing, right? Why do you write? Why do you do this? What do you get out of it, and what do you hope that your readers get out of what you present to them?

It’s a particularly interesting question, because what I…I still get out of it what I got out when I was young, which is just the joy of telling stories and kind of the amazement of telling stories about people who don’t exist, you know, doing things that never happened. Why do we enjoy these things? It’s kind of bizarre when you think about it, but it’s also really cool. So, I still have that. But then, as you spend decades doing it, as I have, and as you have, right, then other things happen.

I mean, partly for me, it’s like, I have no other skill at this point. You know, it’s like this is my marketable skill. This is what I know how to do. I have a habit. I’m used to doing this. But the other reason is that I just want to do, I want to keep getting better. So, part of it for me is just that I want to write, I want to do better with my next book. I want to do something that I couldn’t do ten books ago, but now I can do it. Now, I know, because for me the process is just this, the excitement of challenging myself. So, I can continually challenge myself at something that I like to think I have gained skill at, that I am no longer an apprentice, but a master at doing. And I just love that sense of challenge and of getting closer to, you know, having that product and…not product, but that story at the end where I say, “Yes, yes, this was it. This was what I wanted to write. This matches more closely than ever before that thing I had in my head.” 

I’ve sometimes used the metaphor of writing is, when you first have the idea and the concept, it’s like this beautiful Christmas tree ornament, and it’s shiny and it’s perfect, and then you smash it, and you try to glue it back together with words.

That’s great. Yeah.

And what are you working…oh, the other part of that there was, what do you hope your readers get from your writing?

Well, you know, I hope that they feel immersed in the world and that it gives them that…I hope that while they’re reading it, they really feel that they are in that other place, you know, living with these people through whatever they’re going through. That’s really my goal as a writer, is that immersion.

So, you’re offering them that portal that you never found when you were a kid?

That’s right. That’s right, Ed.

And what are you working on now? I mean, obviously, the next book in this series, but…

Yeah. Yeah, I am.

Does it have a title?

Yes. Book two is called Furious Heaven.

And anything else in the works?

Yes, but nothing I can talk about at the moment.

OK. And where can people find you online?

I am on Twitter @Kate ElliottSFF. That’s Sam Frank Frank. On Twitter. Did I say that, Twitter, already? And I do have a website called I Make Up Worlds, which I haven’t been posting on recently. So mostly it’s Twitter these days for me. I’ve backed off on other things. It’s just too much.

Yes. So often, social media seems like too much.

Yeah. Yeah. And I…yeah. And I’ll be backing off online quite a bit for the rest of the year to just really focus on writing.

All right. Well, thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did too.

I did, Ed. And I’m sorry I went so history geeky. I just can’t…I just love history. And I want to say one last thing about worldshaping and about worldbuilding and how much I recommend to people that they read widely about human culture and human experience. I think that is really the best foundation any of us can have as writers.

An excellent recommendation. OK, well, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Episode 59: Marie Brennan

An hour-long conversation with Marie Brennan, author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series, The Memoirs of Lady Trent, the Onyx Court series, and, as half of M.A. Carrick with Alyc Helms, the upcoming Rook and Rose trilogy.

Website
www.swantower.com

Twitter
@Swan_Tower

Patreon
New Worlds

Marie Brennan’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Perry Reichanadter

Marie Brennan holds an undergraduate degree in archaeology and folklore from Harvard University and pursued graduate studies in cultural anthropology and folklore at Indiana University before leaving to write full-time. Her academic background fed naturally into her work, providing her with the tools to build fantastical worlds.s a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material.

Her first series, the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, came out in 2006. From there she moved to historical fantasy, first with the Onyx Court series (Midnight Never Come (2008), In Ashes Lie (2009), A Star Shall Fall(2010), With Fate Conspire (2011)), spanning three hundred years of London’s history, and then with the acclaimed pseudo-Victorian Memoirs of Lady Trent. The first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons (2013), was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and won the Prix Imaginales in France for Best Translated Novel; the final book, Within the Sanctuary of Wings (2017), won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel. The series as a whole was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and the Grand Prix l’Imaginaire.

Brennan is a member of the Book View Café authors’ cooperative, where she has published the Wilders urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy (2012) and Chains and Memory (2016) as well as several short story collections and nonfiction works, including Writing Fight Scenes and the Patreon-supported New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. Her fondness for role-playing games has led her to write both fiction and setting material for several game lines, including Legend of the Five Rings and Tiny d6. Together with fellow author Alyc Helms, she is the author of the upcoming Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, which will come out under the joint name of M.A. Carrick.

She has taught creative writing to both college students and twelve-year-olds, and run several convention workshops on the art of fight scenes. When not writing or playing RPGs, she practices photography and shōrin-ryū karate. She lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers. Marie.

Thank you for having me.

I said Marie, should you say Marie and not Mary?

Yes, Marie. Yeah, I do run into that in Britain. I run into more people there who pronounce it Mary, which always throws me for a loop.

Well, of course, I’m in Canada, so we have a certain amount of British influence, so I have run into that as well. That’s why I thought, maybe I should just ask. Well, I don’t think we’ve ever actually met in person, although I suspect we’ve been at conventions together, like World Fantasy and WorldCon, I get to once in a while, I was at (World Fantasy) in Los Angeles last fall, but we never met. But I’m happy to have you on the show.

I’m very glad to be here.

We’re going to start the way I always start, and it’s kind of a cliché on here. I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, which, you know, has a nice science-fictional and fantasy ring to it right there, and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up, and how you got interested in writing, and particularly in writing this kind of stuff. It probably started with reading, as it does with most of us…?

Yeah, well, so, I grew up in Dallas. I actually lived in Texas for the first eight years of my life, all in one house, which is sort of remarkable. My parents still live in the house that they moved into about six months or so before I was born. So, I definitely have a feeling of deep roots there, which is sort of funny for people in other parts of the world, where deep roots mean something on the order of centuries. Yeah, six months before I was born! But that counts as deep.

It does in Texas.

Yeah, well, and, you know, it’s interesting to me because, at this point, the period of time that I lived in Texas is now less than half my life. I’ve been living in…I went to college in Massachusetts and then graduate school in Indiana. Now I live in California. But don’t try to tell me I’m not a Texan, which is probably how I prove I am a Texan, by contesting any claims to the contrary.

As I mentioned before we started, I wasn’t born in Texas, but I started school and everything in Texas and moved up here to Canada from Texas. And I clung to being Texan all the way through school up here.

Yeah, yeah.

I still self-identified as a Texan more than anything else.

Yeah. I wonder if there’s a point where that will go away, but I haven’t found it yet. As for how I got started with writing, I mean, yeah, like, I read a lot as a kid, but for me, what happened was, you know, most kids make up stories, it’s just a really common thing for children to do. But specifically, when I was about nine or ten years old, I read a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who was a British young adult and children’s author, really a children’s author, because the YA category kind of didn’t exist for a lot of her career, not as we think of it now. She’s got a novel called Fire and Hemlock, and in that there are two characters who are making up a story together and they’re, like, sending chunks of story back and forth from one to the other. And I remember putting that book down and thinking, I want to tell a story. And it wasn’t the first time I had, like, told stories. I’d made things up prior to then. But it was the first time that I really thought about telling a story for other people, for an audience. So, I pretty much decided at that age that I wanted to be a writer and kind of didn’t let go of that.

Well, did you share what you were writing? I mean, did you start writing to share it with your friends, or how did that work for you?

Remarkably little, all things considered, because, yeah, I did start writing things and, you know, some of them were for class because we had, like, creative-writing exercises. But I did this weirdly for somebody who had decided, “OK, clearly, I want to write stories for other people to read.” I then proceeded to turn inward and show virtually nothing of what I was doing to anybody.

Actually, for a good deal of time, I was really fairly self-taught with writing, I think in part because I was doing it in a way where my critical eye for what I was doing and my skill kind of developed in tandem, which was nice in some ways because…like, I’ve talked to a friend of mine who’s a professional artist about how the problem I have with trying to draw things is, at this stage of my life my critical eye is vastly better than my skill. So, I draw something, and I look at it and go, “That’s terrible!” And I don’t want to put in the work to go through all the terrible things before I get to the stuff that’s not terrible. But with writing, I basically…there’s the proverbial, “You have to write a million words of crap before you start writing anything good.” I wrote my million words of crap where I could only see, like, ten percent of the crappiness of it, and the other ninety percent, I was like, “That’s pretty good!” So, you know, I was able to kind of get through that stage at a period of time where I could see enough that I was improving, but not so much that I despaired that what I was writing was terrible, and I should just stop.

But yeah, during that time, I could probably count on the fingers of, definitely both hands, probably just one, the number of people I really showed my writing to, until I got to college. And then, my science fiction and fantasy group there had a writers’ group that would meet on a, like, weekly or every-other-week basis. And that was the first time that I kind of had, like, accountability for, “All right. I promised I was going to finish something for the next meeting, so I guess I’d better finish that.” And that was very good for my productivity. So, that actually led to me finishing my first novel—rather than my previous length, which had been an unfinished novel. That was all I ever wrote. I finished my first novel. I wrote the bulk of it the summer after my freshman year of college and finished it early my sophomore year. And that really got the ball rolling because that was the point at which I got serious about writing, and it stopped being a, “Oh yeah, theoretically someday I’d like to be a writer,” and started being, “OK, I have a finished novel. How do you submit those things?”

What was it that specifically drew you to science fiction and fantasy?

I mean, I was always interested in that kind of thing. And with regards to college, I tell people that I didn’t actually pick my major by saying what would be useful to me as a fantasy writer, but that’s kind of the effect that it wound up having. My studies, both in undergrad and graduate, I did archaeology and anthropology and folklore, which is all great stuff for a fantasy writer. And those were always just the things that interested me. I liked reading about the past. I liked reading about other parts of the world. I liked reading about mythology. It was all just…that’s what I liked from the start.

There was a brief period of time as a kid where I would have called myself a mystery reader because I imprinted hard on Nancy Drew for a while in elementary school and read truly stupendous quantities of the…like, I read the old hardcovers and then the paperbacks that they did for a while. And then they started doing the Case Files, which were those little, like, white-covered books, and I think I had over a hundred of them. It was, like, it was something absurd.

She’s been rebooted so many times, Nancy Drew.

Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, and actually I recently watched part of the CW series for Nancy Drew, which…it’s really sort of bizarre because it’s like somebody said, “You know what Nancy Drew needs? She needs to be cross-bred with Supernatural.” Like, there’s straight-up ghosts going on all over the place. I’m a little confused by it. But I watched the movie that was made a couple of years ago, and that was a lot of fun. It actually kind of reminded me of what I loved about Nancy Drew as a kid. But as I was starting to peter out on the mystery stuff, I hit a point where…I’ve got a brother who’s three years older than I am and I kind of ransacked his bookshelves and he had some, like, you know, adult fantasy novels there. And that’s kind of when I made the jump into reading fantasy, through Terry Brooks, actually,

I was going to say, were there any specific books that you credit with some of this.

Yeah, the first one that I read in adult fantasy was Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold!, which was his kind of like humorous, portal-fantasy thing.

I remember that one.

Yeah. And then I went from that to Sword of Shannara, which was something of a jarring awakening because that’s not the same kind of book. But the kind of absurd thing is that I’d read The Hobbit as a little kid, and I think I’d made like an attempt or two to read Lord of the Rings, but I hadn’t really gotten into it. But I did read Sword of Shannara, which, if anybody’s read that, you know, it’s basically a one-volume redo of Lord of the Rings with the names changed. And then, some years later, when I was in high school, I picked up the beginning of The Wheel of Time. And I’m probably the only person on the planet who read The Eye of the World and thought, “This reminds me of Terry Brooks,” rather than Tolkien, because I still hadn’t read Lord of the Rings at that point.

Yes, I remember when Sword of Shannara came out and reading it, and I had read Lord of the Rings, and thinking, “Wow, that’s really close.”

Yeah, it is basically a point-by-point retelling. But this is actually something that’s interesting to me because I mentioned that I studied folklore. There’s a concept in folklore studies called a tale type where, you know, you’ll have a tale type that is basically like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella or something like that, where there’s kind of a skeleton of the plot and certain motifs that show up. And then there’s many different variants that you will find of that story in different parts of the world and different time periods and so on. So, like, with Cinderella, you’ve got Cenerentola, you’ve got Aschenputtel, you’ve got different versions in Italy, Germany, and so on. And actually, The Lord of the Rings is essentially a tale type that people like Terry Brooks and David Eddings and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan have kind of retold, in exactly the way that you see in folklore. So, it’s kind of neat to look at it from that direction because then it’s not, “Oh, my God, this is so derivative,” it’s, “What’s different in this variation? And what does that difference tell us? Like, what’s interesting about that?”

And of course, Tolkien’s whole idea was to create a kind of a mythology, a Northern Europe mythology.

Exactly.

And he was drawing on all the stuff that he knew. And he knew a lot, so…

Right. Yeah. You can, you know, certainly trace things to what were his inspirations for his bits. But in a way, it’s very appropriate that people then, you know, went and did a bunch of remixes of Lord of the Rings because that’s exactly what we do with mythology.

Now, you studied, as you mentioned, archaeology and folklore and all of that, and you went on to graduate studies. But somewhere in there, you decided writing was the thing instead of what you’d been studying all that time. What brought that about? Why did you make that choice?

So, it happened while I was in graduate school. Just as I finished up…like, I continued writing novels all through college or grad school, and just as I finished up my coursework in grad school, I actually sold my first novel, which meant that basically writing moved from being a hobby to being an actual paying job right at the point when I lost to that, like, daily engagement with academia. So, a couple of years went by in which I didn’t really make the progress I should have towards, like, doing my qualifying exams and putting together a dissertation committee. And I had actually started writing the Onyx Court series, which were…I’d written Midnight Never Come, and I was about to do In Ashes Lie, with then the intent of doing two others. And I had possibly deluded myself, who knows, that I was going to be able to write novels while also writing a dissertation. But writing research-intensive novels while also writing a dissertation seemed more difficult.

And honestly, at that point, you know, it’s a time-honored thing to be a professor and a writer at the same time but I could kind of tell that, like, the dissertation and then the job hunt for your kind of, like, entry-level academic positions, that was going to eat a lot of time and energy in a way that I was worried was going to be detrimental to the writing career; that, you know, here I have this thing that is ongoing and making me money, not huge amounts of it, but money, and I didn’t want to, like, hamstring my writing career in order to do that. But if I wasn’t going to get an academic job, then was there any reason other than stubborn pride—which, let’s not discount the power of stubborn pride—but was there any reason to finish the PhD? And I was kind of going back and forth and wondering.

And then while I was asking myself that question, my husband, the company that he was working for, went bankrupt, and so, he didn’t have a job anymore. He works in IT. And so, southern Indiana, not a lot of IT jobs to be had, whereas if we moved to California, he could have a job basically tomorrow. So, we talked it over and basically decided, yeah, you know, if I’m questioning whether I should finish my PhD in the first place, let’s just go ahead and bail out of that and go to California. He got a job here, and since then, I’ve been writing full time.

That very first novel. How did the selling and that come about? How did you break in? That’s the question.

In a little bit of a roundabout way, because at the time—and mind you, I started submitting things back when submission involved print it out and stick it in an envelope and go to the post office.

Tell me about it.

Yeah. Yeah. So, the way I usually phrase it to people is, like, it wasn’t quite the Cretaceous, but I’m not sure anatomically modern Homo sapiens had appeared on the scene yet. So, I had been sending it to publishers because at that point, a number of them did still accept, like, over-the-transom subs from authors without agents, and not only accepted them but would respond in something less than a geological epoch. And so, I was submitting novels, and I was also querying agents. And the second novel that I had written, which at the time was titled Doppelganger, it’s now Warrior, I had basically run out of publishers that took unagented subs to send it to. But I’d heard from somebody that you could sometimes kind of, like, sneak in the back door by sending them just a query letter, saying, “I’ve got this book, would you like me to send you the manuscript?” And at that point, it was no longer an unsolicited submission, they had said yes.

So, I sent off, like, two or three of those letters. I think it was Del Rey wrote back saying, “When we say we don’t look at unsolicited submissions, we mean it.” I think maybe one of them never responded, and the other one happened to land on the desk of Devi Pillai, who was an editor that I had met in passing at a convention. And she said, “Sure, go ahead and send it to me.” So I sent her the manuscript and, like a month later or so, I came home and found a message on my answering machine from Devi saying, “So, I read this, and I found it really interesting, and I showed it to my senior editor, and she reminded me that we don’t take submissions from people without agents, so go get an agent.” So I did. And this is something that will still happen occasionally now. Like I mean, unsolicited submissions are less of a thing, but if you get an editor saying, “Yeah, I’m interested in this thing,” you then go to the agents and say, “So, I’ve got, like, a provisional offer pending, basically.” And that helps get the agents to…not necessarily, they don’t all, like, offer, they still are looking at your body of work and whether you’re, like, a good match for them. But it means that they will respond more rapidly and say, “Oh, OK, there’s a thing that might be happening here.” So, I queried a couple of agents that I was particularly interested in, and one of them offered me representation. So, she then ended up negotiating that deal for me.

Yeah, that’s…in my case, I actually got the offer, and then I said to an agent, “Look, I have a contract. Would you like 15 percent of it?” And boy, that was easy to get an agent that way.

Yeah, but I would say, like, actually one of the agents I queried, said, “You know, I read through this and like, you know, I wish you the best of luck, but I just I don’t think I’m a good match for you.” And I think actually, you know, good agents will still pay attention to that rather than saying, “Oh, well, you know, it’s easy money,” but then they’re stuck with a client that maybe they’re not actually a good agent for them. And that’s not great for them in the long run. So…

Yeah, there are lots of pitfalls, that’s for sure, you can run into. And if you started in the Cretaceous or whatever it was, I started when it was still single-cellular life forms. So, I did a lot of that mailing into the great unknown and waiting, you know, a year or two for them to get back to you with rejection.

Yeah.

Well, let’s move on. You’ve written a lot of books since then…

Yeah.

And there’s been awards and…have you been surprised by the response you’ve had?

I mean, it’s sort of a weird question because, like, yes and no. On the one hand, I have healthy self-esteem. I actually have much less imposter syndrome, I think, than, especially, a lot of women tend to. And I don’t know why I managed to dodge a fair bit of that bullet. But in, like, specific instances, every time I’ve been told, like, “Oh, you’ve been nominated for this award,” it has completely blindsided me. It’s not that I’ve been like, “Ah, yes, that is my due, and of course, it is coming to me.” No, every single time, I’ve just kind of stared and said, “Really?” So, I kind of hope I never start to take that for granted because, at that point, somebody should slap me. But The Memoirs of Lady Trent, I will say, it did actually surprise me—because that’s the series that has gotten the most attention.

I love the covers.

Oh, the covers are fantastic. And that’s a chunk of why they’ve done so well, I fully believe. They’ve just had such amazing covers. But the previous series, The Onyx Court, like, that, to me, was an ambitious series. Like, it was my dive into historical fantasy, I was doing all of this research, I was, like, you know, grappling with some kind of big questions about, like, change over time and all these things. And, like, I was super ambitious with those and the books did fine, but there was no award attention or anything like that for them. And the Memoirs of Lady Trent, when I started writing them, I was, like, “OK, well, this is going to be this kind of, like, fluffy pulp adventure, like, Victorian kind of memoir thing.” I did not actually think of them as being all that deep when I started out. And the depth that they have, they very much kind of developed organically over time, as I found myself ultimately dealing with a lot of interesting questions in them. But I still sort of thought of them as being like, “Yeah, that fluffy adventure series that is kind of like lightweight compared to what I was doing before.” But I do think, yeah, they developed a lot more depth and complexity than I expected when I started. And so, yeah, those are the ones that have, you know, gotten the most, like, award nominations and some wins and such.

You’ve touched on the fact that you draw on your academic training and archaeology and folklore. And it’s interesting. I think you’re the, uh, you’re well…I’ve talked to more than fifty authors, so it’s hard to remember, but certainly Seanan McGuire comes to mind as somebody who has plumbed her knowledge of folklore.

And also of medicine. Jesus, the things that she talks about.

Yeah, she has those two sides, for sure.

Yeah.

So, you’re still drawing heavily on that. Do you find you’ve found that that’s been a really helpful thing to have in your background?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, that is honestly the wellspring from which my stories are coming. I think it was in, like, the last year I found myself calling myself an anthropological compost heap from which stories occasionally sprout up. It might not be the most dignified image, but I think it might be the most accurate.

I’ll remember it!

Yeah! I do a lot of reading about, like, different parts of the world, different time periods, and just kind of chucking all of that into the mental hopper. And so, you know, one of the questions writers will sometimes get asked is, “Do your story ideas start with a character or with a plot?” And I have the knee-jerk tendency to any such question to say, “I reject your false dichotomy.” But the smartass answer I’ll often give to that one is I start with a world. Which isn’t exactly true, but for me, the character and the problems that they’re dealing with and the world all of that is taking place in are so intertwined that in some instances I can, like, pull it apart and say, “OK, I can tell that I started with this bit over here.” Like, The Memoirs of Lady Trent, the idea for that one actually sprang partly out of a Dungeons and Dragons book and partly out of the Dragonology…I know there’s a book, but actually, for me, it was the wall calendars that I had, which are just like a field guide to dragons around the world. And D&D had a book called The Draconomicon, which was all about dragons, including things about, like, their life cycle and so forth. And it gave me the idea of, “What if I ran a D&D game where instead of, like, killing dragons and taking their stuff, the goal was to study them instead?” And I very rapidly realized that D&D’s mechanics are miserably suited to doing anything other than killing monsters and taking their stuff, so it turned into novels instead in my head. And so, with that one, it was kind of a character, of, OK, somebody who’s going to be studying dragons.

But it was about half a second later that that immediately became this kind of Victorian setting in my mind, because it’s a time period where there’s a huge amount of scientific inquiry, but it’s also so new that it’s possible to just kind of like leap in and make huge discoveries, whereas a lot of the science we have now, you’ve got to spend years studying it and learning all of the basic stuff before you can go and then make new discoveries, kind of on the edges of what’s known. So, I wanted that earlier period, where it was really easy to make the big exciting discoveries, and then that ended up shaping a lot of stuff about the character and so forth, because I can’t really think of characters not as part of their world. It’s why there’re whole genres of fan fiction out there that I just can’t get into, because to me, if you take characters out of the setting that they were in and make them, like, coffee-shop baristas or something, they’re not the same people. And it doesn’t work for me at all.

Yeah, my daughter was telling me about some of that kind of thing. She’s nineteen, so she’s much more plugged into kind of the fanfiction and things like that. And I thought, “Really? People do that?” Apparently, they do.

Well, but I mean, fanfiction as a whole is not remotely a new thing. And honestly, a lot of it goes back to what I was saying about mythology, that, yeah, we take these stories and we retell them. We’ve been doing that for as long as we’ve been human.

I suppose that’s true.

Yeah.

I wanted to mention on the Dragon studying side, years ago for a magazine called…what was it called? InQuest, I think? I think it was a Magic: The Gathering-focused magazine. And I wrote a few articles for them, and I wrote one, which was a fictionalized account of the last draconologist, whom I called Vladimir Kapusianyk, he was like one hundred and some years old, and he was living in a nursing home in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. And I had all this, you know, these theories about how dragons breathe fire and all that was really the core of it. And much to my surprise, I actually got letters that had been sent to the magazine, mostly from kids, saying, “Oh, I read the story about Vladimir Kapusianyk, and I really want to take up the mantle of being the next draconologist. And I had to send a note back saying, “I’m sorry, I made it all up.”

Yeah.

But it showed up on the Internet for years. I would find this as if it was… somebody had taken it seriously. And it was very strange. Well, speaking of worlds, that brings us very nicely to Driftwood, because that seems to be something that’s very much based around a very interesting world. Or fragments of a once-existing world, I guess.

Yeah, many, many fragments. I don’t even remember how I got the idea for Driftwood. It just came to me at one point when I was in graduate school. Yeah. Driftwood, the sort of bleak tagline for it is, “where worlds go to die.” The idea behind it is that worlds have some kind of apocalypse like, you know, Ragnarok or whatever equivalent, but maybe not all of the world gets destroyed. And the fragment that is left drifts through what they refer to as the mist and eventually kind of runs into this mass of world fragments that’s called Driftwood. And they continue kind of decaying while they’re there because the…there’s sort of more of a high-level idea behind Driftwood than I normally have with my settings, which is that it is fundamentally a place that is about entropy and liminality, because it’s all of these fragments pushed together, and you’re constantly crossing borders within there in two different worlds where things operate a little bit differently, and then entropy, because they do keep decaying, they start out kind of large usually when they hit the edge, but then they sort of move inward toward a place that inhabitants of Driftwood call The Crush, which is the centre where the last few fragments basically get ground out of existence. And so, like, it’s odd because in some ways it’s a very bleak and nihilistic setting, and yet the stories that I’ve been telling there have all been about how do people adapt to that and how do they decide to hold on to the things that still matter to them and keep moving forward.

So, the Publishers Weekly review for the book Driftwood talked about it as being “hope in the face of apocalypse,” which was a much more timely phrase than I really expected when I was writing the book. This is an interesting year for that to be coming out here.

Well, it’s a collection of short stories. Some of them had been previously published. And then you wrote some new material for the book, is that right?

Yeah, it’s kind of a thing that used to be called a fix-up novel, which is to say, yeah, the bulk of the stuff in it is made up of short stories that I had published before. But then, I wrote a framed story to give context to why these stories are being told and, like, build a plot around them. And then there’s a new large piece, it’s a novelette, actually, longer than a short story, that I wrote to give, like, kind of a big centerpiece to it all. So, yeah, it’s not quite a short story collection. It’s a little bit like a mosaic novel because the different stories are told from different perspectives, which actually is very fitting, obviously, for Driftwood.

From the moment that I began publishing Driftwood short stories, I had people asking me…they thought the setting was great, and they’re like, “Will you ever do a novel there?” And my answer was always no, because it felt like a novel was the wrong thing for Driftwood. It’s about fragments. It’s about incomplete, like, bits and pieces, and a novel is a big, coherent, singular thing. But then when the idea came of doing it as this kind of mosaic fix-up novel sort of thing, that’s really appropriate for Driftwood, that it is something which is made out of smaller pieces brought together. And so, the form of what I’m putting out reflects the thing that it is describing in an interesting way.

Form follows function.

Yeah.

Well, this is the point at which I ask how you go about planning things, but it sounds like this one’s a little different. So, maybe let’s talk about what your planning process looked like for making this fix-up, but also what more typical for you and one of your novels.

So, I’ve had some changes happen with that over time. Like, I definitely am naturally more on the end of being kind of a discovery writer, or “pantser,” as sometimes is what people will say, which is that I’ll start off with, “OK, here’s a character in a situation with a problem. Let’s see what they do.” And I just kind of write my way through it. And that is more or less how I have written most of my novels. I’ll usually, at least by the time I’m partway through, have some ideas of things that I know I want to have happen later on. And then the metaphor that I’ll usually use is, there’s this big field in front of me, and I need to get to the other side of it. And I’ll go out there, and I’ll hammer a couple of pegs into the ground at various points and say, “OK, like, halfway across the field, I need to be over here.” And then I’ll kind of figure out an interesting path toward that peg on my way there.

So, a lot of the in-between stuff is very much make-it-up-as-I-go-along. But it does vary, because obviously with Driftwood, that was something where I didn’t so much have pegs as entire chunks of field that were already mapped. The interesting challenge there was figuring out how to sequence them, because the stories had nothing in them saying what was the order in which they had happened. They’ve all got a unifying thread, which is there’s this guy that everybody just calls Last, because he is the only survivor of the world that he comes from. His world is long gone. He should be dead. He’s still around. He appears to be immortal. And so, all of the stories have people interacting with Last for one reason or another, and so he actually also becomes the unifying thread for the novel, or for the book. But it meant I had to go through those stories and figure out, more kind of on a thematic level than a plot one, what was the effective order to put them in with the different kinds of moods that the stories had, and what was the reason those stories were being told at that moment. So, there was a lot of…I printed stuff out, very, very tiny, so that I could kind of arrange them all on my floor and move the stories around, looking at them and trying to get a feel for what was the best flow between them.

And then, at the far end of the spectrum, there’s this trilogy that I’ve been writing with my friend Alyc Helms, where, because we’re collaborating, I can’t rely on my usual thing of, I’ve got this vague cloud in my head that sort of evolves as I go along and I solidify bits of it as I go. Like, until we have telepathy, that doesn’t work. There’s another human being whose head also needs to hold what we’re doing. And so, for that one, it’s actually been much more rigorously planned than either of us ever does on our own, down to, there’s like a color-coded spreadsheet of the scenes with the color-coding showing whose point of view we’re using in each thing. It’s much more rigorously plotted than we tend to do. So, mostly I figure it out as I go along, except when I completely and totally don’t.

Well, how does that work in with all the research you’ve done for some of your stories? With the deep research, it would seem to me, would kind of, I don’t know, need a certain amount of planning along the way to know what you needed to research.

Yeah. I mean. It actually, in some ways, goes the other direction, which is that those pegs that I’m hammering into the ground, some of them come from the research. I’ll discover something and say, “Oh, that’s awesome. That needs to go into the book. Now, let me come up with a reason for it.” That actually happened, not even really a research thing, but the second of the memoirs, The Tropic of Serpents, I saw a photo of a portion of Iguazu Falls in South America where…it’s this huge extended, like, arc of waterfalls, basically, and there’s a spot in it where there’s kind of this, like, island of cliff jutting out in the middle of the waterfall. And I looked at that and thought, “That’s amazing. I am putting that in this book.” Why? “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out later.” So, like, there’s a whole chunk of plot in The Tropic of Serpents that happened because I wanted this island in the middle of a waterfall.

So, that was true a lot with the Onyx Court stuff, where I was…I could say very clearly, “OK, I need to read up on this time period.” And I would read books about daily life in that time period. And I did have slight amounts of outline for those just because…I mentioned that I play roleplaying games, and I ran a game, for people who know this one, Changeling: The Dreaming, I did a game where I wanted to make use of the fact that changelings reincarnate in that setting, that it’s the, you know, basically are born into a human host, and then when that host dies, they get reborn. And so, I wanted to do something that made use of that. So, I ran a game where the characters were reincarnating from lifetime to lifetime, doing this thing over a long period of time. Only they don’t always remember their previous lives. So, I was like, “I don’t want to make everybody buy high levels of the remembrance background to justify why they know…well, what if I did it backward?” And so, if you know the movie Memento, I called the game Memento, because it was all run in reverse. It started off in the present day with them finding out that apparently, they’d been doing something for hundreds of years that they didn’t remember, and then they drank from this magical well to remember. And the rest of the campaign, up until the very end, proceeded through flashbacks, where they were going back to their previous lives, remembering what they had already done that they didn’t remember. And I set this in London because I wanted an area that had been sort of continuously occupied for hundreds of years, which is hard to find in the United States. And London, you know, has a really nice, interesting, deep history. It also is an English-language country, which made research much easier. 

And I didn’t do nearly the levels of research for the game that I did for the novels, but actually, the Onyx Courtseries ended up spinning out of some of the material from the game in kind of relatively loose ways in most of the books. But it meant that I knew things like, “OK, I’m going to a book that is set in the 17th century where the big climactic thing is going to be the great fire. OK, I’m going to go read about the Great Fire. Oh, there was that plague the year before. I guess I need to read about the Great Plague as well.” And then it ended up being, I wanted to do the warfare stuff that led up to that, so I had to go read about the English Civil War, which, wow, that was not something you should try to research in three months flat. But I would just, like, read about stuff in that time period and then build my plot out of the pieces that I found was actually the way that a lot of it worked rather than, “I know that I need to know this thing for my plot.”

Well, once you have whatever level of planning and outlining you’re doing on the specific project, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, take a quill pen out under the trees, or…?

No. I started writing on a computer when I was nine, and I never looked back. I have very occasionally written things longhand. Actually, there’s a prequel story for my Wilders series called The Bottle Tree, which I wrote as a reward to my Kickstarter backers for the second book, that I did write the entirety of that longhand while I was traveling. And that was bizarre. I’m not sure why I did that, but I did. Mostly it is on the computer, and…I’m strangely a solar-powered night owl. Like, I really need sunshine. If I don’t get sunshine, my batteries run down and I don’t function well. But I operate at my best, usually, from about 10 p.m. until two or three a.m. So, that’s actually when I do the bulk of my writing, is late at night.

So, that would be writing at home, not writing in a coffee shop then, probably.

Yes, I am lucky in that I’ve basically always had kind of a home office. You know, we’ve been able to have apartments or now a house where there’s a room that can just be my office. Though in college I had the ability to stick on headphones and work on a novel while my roommates were sitting like three feet away watching TV, I’ve lost that level of focus, I think.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Um, really, the answer to that question depends on who I’m being compared to, so, I guess, middle of the pack in the grand scheme of things. The math that I’ll do for, “How long is it going to take me to write this novel?” is that I average about a thousand words a day, which some people think is fast, some people think is slow. For me, that ties in partly with being more on the figure-it-out-as-I-go along kind of writing. I’ve found by trial and error that most of the time a thousand words a day is the pace at which I can figure out my plot. Like, I’m laying track right ahead of the train, and at that pace, I don’t run out of track. Usually, if I try to go faster, I’ll basically write myself into a corner, though I will go faster if I hit a stretch where I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know the next several things that are going to happen. It’s just a matter of getting through them.” Then I will speed up.

It’s like the difference between laying truck on the prairie and laying track north of Lake Superior as the CPR did.

Yeah, I was about to say, the Rocky Mountains were what came to mind for me. Like, yeah, there are some Rocky Mountains stretches where it is slower. But then, when Alyc and I were drafting the first of the Rook and Rose books, we basically did NaNoWriMo for four months straight. We wrote a 200,000-word novel in four months, and that was in part because swapping off between us made the work feel lighter. It wasn’t like we were each doing half the work, but we helped keep each other’s enthusiasm up and, like, one of us might have ideas when the other was stuck, but also because we had to plan it so much that when we had a plan, it was like, “Well, is there any reason we shouldn’t write two chapters this week? No? Let’s go.”

Once you have whatever your first draft looks like, what does that first draft look like? Is it something that takes a lot of polishing and revision? What’s your revision process like?

No, I started off, and still am mostly, on the end of relatively clean first drafts. Now, I will say in the early days the relatively clean first drafts were in part because my revision skills weren’t as well developed. I say, not even really jokingly, that of the basic skills you need to be just, like, a competent writer who can be submitting your work somewhere, the last one I acquired was finishing what I started. So, on the level of, like, prose and characterization and so forth, like, I had those down before I had down the ability to have a complete story. But I definitely got a lot better at revision, at being able to see where it was possible to change things rather than feeling like it was kind of this fixed text in my mind. I’ve gotten better at being able to pull things apart and rework them for, you know, overall benefit. So, I do more revision now than I used to, but I’m also somewhat prone to doing chunks of that revision while I’m still drafting. So, I still frequently will wind up with a pretty solid first draft by the time that I’m done, as opposed to people I know where the first draft is, like, that’s where they figure out what story they’re actually writing, and once that’s done, they go back and write the real book. So, I’m not on that level of changing things.

My first guest on here was Robert J. Sawyer, whom I’ve known for a long time, and he was quoting Edo van Belkom, I think, another Canadian writer, who calls it “the vomit draft,” their first draft, because you kind of get everything out there, and it makes a huge mess, but you feel better, and then you just have to clean it up.

Yeah, yeah. I’m not quite that level of things. So, the first draft often pretty closely resembles the finished one.

What sorts of things do you find yourself revising as you go along, the things you have to watch for, and then catch in your own writing? Because we all have little things that we’re prone to. At least, I do.

Yeah. If it’s not a massive change, a lot of it is stuff like, “OK, I want to make a mention of this strand sooner so that it doesn’t kind of come out of nowhere later on when it becomes important,” or, “Oh, I tossed in that idea thinking I was going to do something with it and then it never went anywhere, so let me go back and remove that.” Then a lot of it is just going to be things of, kind of smaller-scale alterations just for pacing and such. Like, “OK, let’s get to the action here a little bit sooner,” or “Oh, I didn’t set that up well enough, so let me add in some more detail to give it context.” It is relatively rare most of the time for me to cut a whole scene or add in a whole scene, though that does happen, and that’s been happening more lately. That has definitely happened with the Rook and Rose stuff, because, in part, the plot there is so complex. And actually, the novel that I most recently finished, which is a book for the game Legend of the Five Rings, I was, like, super-excited to finish the book, in part because I had gotten behind and really needed to finish by deadline. And so, I kind of mushed through one night and, like, wrote the whole end of the book, and then stopped and looked at the last couple of chapters and went, “Those are crap.” Like, I just need to completely redo them. I should not have tried to finish the book that fast. So, I did actually have to do a rewrite, not in an “I’ve changed my idea about the plot” kind of way, but just in an “I did a bad job of that” way.

You’ve worked with a number of different editors, I would presume, with the number of books and different publishers. What sorts of feedback do you usually get from editors? Do they find your drafts as clean as you think they are?

It has varied. I will say that editors these days, they’re so overworked that a lot of them just don’t have the time for editing that, you know, they might have had, like, fory years ago in the days that you hear stories about. But it has varied a lot, also, depending on the editor’s personality. It’s ranged from, you know, fairly hands-off, like, Midnight Never Come, the first of the Onyx Court books, I think my edit letter from Devi was, like, half a page, Like, it was really brief. She did not want a lot of changes made, whereas Priyanka Krishnan, who’s the one we’re working with for Rook and Rose, is very much more hands-on and, you know, really getting into the text. She asked for us to add in a couple of scenes to flesh out certain things with the relationships in the story.

And I also wound up writing some new material for Turning Darkness into Light, the sequel to the memoirs, not because Miriam Weinberg, the editor for that one, specifically asked for it, but because she had concerns about this one flashback that was in the story, which her suggested fix for dealing with that flashback, I was like, “Oh, that doesn’t work for me for X, Y, Z reasons,” but the underlying reason she’d suggested that was that the flashback felt jarring, that it was like this one moment where it stops being kind of the present-day of the story and goes to something that happened five years ago. And so, when I talked with her, I said, “You know, I could flesh out some other things in the story if I gave a couple of the other characters similar kinds of flashbacks. What do you think of that?” And she said, “Yes, that works fantastically.” So, we were able to solve that problem by basically making that be not the only time the narrative jumped out of order like that. And it ended up assisting a bunch of other things that could use some, like complexity.

Well, I kind of jumped straight to the editor, but there are many authors who will take an intermediate step of beta readers or people like that. Is that something you’ve ever done? I never think of it because I’ve never done it. But I know it’s done!

I mostly haven’t. The sort of stepping-stone exception is Alyc Helms, the writer I mentioned, whom I’m working on Rook and Rose with, has been essentially my best writing buddy since the year 2000 when we met, because we think enough alike when it comes to writing and how we approach stories that…usually it’s not a finished draft, it’s, like, I’m halfway or three-quarters of the way through a book and I’m stuck, and I would fling the manuscript in Alix, going, “Help me!”, and they would read through what I had, and we would talk it over, and they would help me figure out how to proceed with the rest of it, which then ended up being part of how we wrote the Rook and Rose stuff together, because we said, “You know, we think a lot alike about this kind of stuff, like, hey, what if we tried writing something together?” And for that book, at Alyc’s suggestion, we did actually have a couple of beta readers, you know, people that we sent a finished draft to, but not the polished, fully ready-to-go one, and made some revisions based on the feedback that we got from that.

I guess the benefit of both beta readers and eventually the editor, of course, is just getting that fresh set of eyes on something that maybe you’re a little too close to.

Very much so. And that was why we were really eager for it with Rook and Rose, because that is a book with a lot of intrigue and a lot of stuff around, like, mysteries and misdirection and things involving…the Rook, actually, of the series title is this, like, you know, mysterious vigilante, et cetera. And so, we’re doing a lot of stuff around, “Who is the Rook?”, and it’s really difficult to judge that in your own work because you know all the answers to the mysteries and all the twists of the intrigue and who the Rook is, and so you can’t really judge very accurately whether you are providing enough information, but not too much information. Is the information in the right spot? You’ve got to get some outside eyes on that to tell you whether or not that makes sense. And those outside eyes have to be from somebody who doesn’t know the story already. Because we also had, my sister was serving as kind of our alpha reader in the, “We’re super excited about this thing we’re writing, and we want somebody to squee! at us about it. So, hey, you need to read the chapters as we finish them and tell us how clever we are.” She’s been very tolerant and patient with us, but she already knew the ideas behind the story, so she couldn’t tell us that stuff. We had to then get the beta readers once there was a finished draft.

I can remember who said it, but some writer said all that writers really want in a review is twelve single-spaced pages of closely recent praise.

Yeah. I mean, I will say I have gotten some reviews that had critical feedback in them that I did actually find useful. The one that particularly stuck with me, because it was such a simple thing, there was a review of Doppelganger when it was first published, when it was under that title, where the reviewer commented on me overusing italics for emphasis and things, and I looked at the text and was like, “You know, you’re right.” And so, I have since very much dialed back my italics.

I’m a little prone to…ellipses. Dot-dot-dot.

Oh, ellipses, semicolons, em-dashes, even colons, which are really not much in fashion in 21t-century fiction, but spending about five years writing like a Victorian lady had some bad influences on my prose. I want to use all the punctuation, thank you very much.

Just because you mentioned Rook and the Rook and Rose, I realized I kind of skipped over one step, which is characters. How do you find the characters for your story, and how do you develop them?

That is very much an organic back of the brain process for me. I’m not the sort of person who sits down and consciously constructs like, “OK, let me figure out, like, go through a questionnaire and create the character.” The part of the process that does get a little more conscious is, I will try to prod myself out of certain defaults about like gender, sexuality, ethnicity, et cetera, and say, “Well, like, whatever I default to, maybe I should try to do something different,” just to be, like, aware of that and make sure I’m not doing the same thing over and over again. But characters are kind of a subconscious gestalt thing for me. I don’t get emotionally invested in them if I construct them in a very logical sort of way. And I need them to…in a way, I need them to be able to surprise me, because some of the best moments in my stories tend to be the ones where, “I didn’t plan that!” It was just the moment where I’m in the middle of writing the scene and the thing that I intended for the character to do, there’s just kind of this feeling of, “No, that’s not the right thing. The thing that they would do in this moment is this other thing.” And that invariably is actually the more interesting thing to have happen rather than what I had planned.

And this does mean that I wind up with random things sometimes where I’m, like, “Why do I know this about that character? Like, this isn’t even relevant to the story,” but just, I am sure of that fact. There’s an incredibly minor character who shows up in, I think, one scene in the third Onyx Court book where, he’s gay, I know that he’s gay. Why do I know this? I don’t know. It just, it’s not relevant to the story, and I’m not looking for anybody to pat me on the back for a thing that you completely cannot tell by reading the book, but it’s just a fact about him that my brain has provided to me.

Well, and that is one of the fascinating things about the whole writing process, is the way that, you know, what are our brains doing in there while we’re writing?

Yeah.

Because every writer has similar stories.

Yeah. It’s a neurologically weird thing, because we are wired to kind of model human behavior in our minds and to, like, imagine what people might do in certain situations. And so, creating characters is kind of a process of, you know, leveraging that for fictional purposes. And if you do it well, then it does start to feel like there’s…or it can, because, I mean, obviously not every writer works the same way. But for me, if I have done a good job of creating the character in a believable fashion, then it does feel a little bit like there’s this real thing and I need to figure it out as opposed to I need to make the decisions. And that’s just kind of how I approach it.

Well, I guess I kind of brings me to the other cliché on here: the big philosophical questions of why? Why do you write, why do you write this kind of stuff, and why do you think any of us write?

Because we’re too dumb not to? I don’t know. Like, it is just something where, this is what my brain has always done. And over the years since I was nine and decided I wanted to be a writer, I have encouraged my brain to do more of this. You know, we kind of respond to rewards, and so if I enjoy doing the writing, which I do, then I have this feeling of, “Oh, I want more of that enjoyment, let’s do more of that.” And so, my brain generates more ideas for me. I’m not the sort of person…I think it was Vonnegut who said, you know, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I love writing when it’s going well. There are days where it’s like pulling teeth, but when it’s going well, I’m discovering things. That’s part of why I write the way that I do, with less planning, usually, because I want that feeling of, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming. And now I get to enjoy it kind of in the way that the reader does.”

And there is a dark side to that reward cycle of, “OK, I have trained my brain to understand that I will be happy if I do these things,” which is that it will continue to offer up ideas, sometimes is the most inappropriate ways. The one that really sticks with me—and this was, again, during the I stuff, when I was writing A Star Shall Fall—you know, like, you wake up in the morning, and there’s that period of time where you’re awake, but you don’t quite have clear thoughts going through your head yet, and so, I’m lying there in bed, and I stretch, and the first clear thought that emerges in my head is “Vivisection!” And I’m just lying there going, “OK. Yes, that is a really good idea for the plot because that works very well with X, Y, and Z. Could you not have waited like ten minutes? Let me get vertical first?” No, first thought of the morning, “Vivisection!” Because clearly, I’d been thinking about the story in my sleep and that was what popped out of. So yeah. Every so often…and I recognize it’s weird to talk about my brain like it’s somehow separate from me, but it’s like I’m standing there looking at my brain going, “Really? Really? That’s what you give me?”

Yeah. I can identify. Well, as someone whose studied folklore, you know that, you know, humans have always told stories. Where do you think that comes from?

It’s part and parcel, I think, of us being social creatures, that some of the storytelling is ways for us to understand the behavior of the other people around us and to prepare ourselves for, “If other people do this then I can do that, and this will produce good results.” But it is interesting to me that to the best of our knowledge, to the best of my knowledge, anyway, we are the only creatures that do tell stories. Because it’s been fascinating watching studies in animal cognition, kind of taking the things that we thought were uniquely human and sort of one by one saying, “Well, we might do that more than other animals do, but we’re not the only ones who do it,” like, you know, language and such. No other creatures have, that we know of, languages the way that we do, but they communicate in some incredibly complex ways. Like, there are cetaceans, like whales and dolphins and such, that have names, like, there are specific sounds that are used to identify specific creatures within a pod, and so, that’s names. And, like, killer whales have culture, in the sense that different pods have different ways of playing that get passed down between the generations, and as an anthropologist, I don’t know of any definition of culture that would not include pod-specific methods of playing passed down between generations.

But storytelling, we don’t, that I know of, have any evidence that other creatures do this. And so, that’s kind of a unique thing about humans. And I think it’s an evolutionary advantage. It’s something where we can imagine what might happen in the future and teach ourselves to be ready for that. Even if what we’re doing it with is stuff that’s not realistic, we’re still learning useful brain lessons from that.

Well, the name of the podcast is The Worldshapers. Do you hope that you’re writing in some way…I mean, shaping the whole world is a bit grand, very little fiction has ever done that, but perhaps shaping other people or, you know, shaping it in some small way?

Yeah, I mean, I try not to think about that too directly while I’m writing because I know me, and I know that tends to lead me in very kind of didactic, preachy directions. I can’t have that at the forefront of my mind, or it winds up resulting in bad stories. But I do have that as a general…like, I hope that my stories do some good in the world. The memoirs, in particular, have gotten a lot of responses from, you know, women working in different fields of science who tell me how much it means to them to see this kind of character, like, “Who’s this lady doing science?”

My wife’s an engineer, so…

Yeah, yeah. And like, there’s a character in the memoirs who is…the term asexual doesn’t get used for her, but she is, she kind of talks about it in ways that make that apparent if you’re looking for that kind of thing. And so, I’ve gotten messages from some ace readers who are just like, “Oh, my God, it makes me so happy to see a character like this in a story,” because it’s really important to us to see people like us being reflected in fictional worlds rather than being written out of them. And so, that is part of why I do this, like prodding the default thing of saying, “OK, well, you know, I haven’t really talked about people who are like X, Y, Z. How can I fit that in here?” Because I do want people to have that feeling of recognition and feeling like they’ve been seen and that they’re a part of the world. But I try to kind of, like, think about that at the moments when it will be a good inspiration rather than, “Now I will do the very special episode of…,” because that’s just…nobody wants to read that. 

“A very special episode…” Well, you’ve talked a little bit about what you’re working on, but just want to reiterate that you have the collaboration coming up, The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rosetrilogy with…who was your co-writer?

Alyc Helms, but it’s coming out under the joint name of M. A. Carrick.

Is this the first time you’ve written as M.A. Carrick together?

Yeah. We knew that editors might ask for a joint pen name, so we had one picked out just in case.

And what are you working on yourself?

So, The Night Parade of Demons is the Legend of the Five Rings novel I mentioned, that’s going to be coming out in February of next year, not too long after The Mask of Mirrors, and obviously, Driftwood is coming out in August. Other than that, short fiction, stuff for the Patreon. I figure having three novel projects kind of at various stages of production is enough for the moment.

And you wanted to make a mention of your Patreon?

Oh, yes, because Worldshapers! The Patreon is called New Worlds, and it is all about worldbuilding. The genesis of it is, basically, I love worldbuilding, I love talking about anthropology and such, and for a long time I felt like I wanted to write a book about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to wrangle a topic that large into book shape. And then eventually it came to me that, well, if I did it as a Patreon, then, rather than trying to tackle the whole thing at once, I could just do weekly essays on different aspects of culture and worldbuilding. And then, maybe after I had written those, I could shuffle them into book shape. So, I started that up. It’s now over three years and counting that I have been writing weekly essays about different aspects of worldbuilding, and I’m not done yet. So, that feeling of, “It’s a ittle difficult to put this in book shape!” was not wrong. What I’ve been doing is, at the end of each year, I put out an e-book that collects the essays from that year, organized into the best shape possible, with the topics that my patrons have voted for. And I think probably when I do finish, whenever that happens, I’ll probably go back and reorganize them into some larger volumes that will be a little bit more kind of thematically organized around different spheres of human culture. But that is some way off, because I’ll need to finish going through all the bits and pieces before I can put together the whole thing. So, yes, it’s proven really, really useful for me, because it means I don’t have to figure out the organization ahead of time. I can just kind of dive into all the interesting little corners and then organize them afterward.

And where can people find you online? You use Swan Tower rather than your name for most of your things, it looks like.

Yeah, that actually dates back to when I thought I was going to be in academia as well, and I wanted a like kind of website and general branding that could cover my academic studies, because I was studying science fiction and fantasy stuff, as well as my fiction work. That ended up not being necessary, but I like Swan Tower. So, SwanTower.com, as one word, is the website, and that has links to the Patreon, which is New Worlds, and that’s also, Swan_Tower is my username there. I am Swan_Tower on Twitter. That’s pretty much it for me on social media. I’m not on Facebook or anything like that.

Ok, well, thanks so much for being a guest of The Worldshapers today. I enjoyed that. I hope you did too.

I did, too. Yeah. Thank you very much for doing this.

And this should come out…well, of course, whoever’s listening to this will know when it’s out. It should come out about the same time as Driftwood, in August. So perfect timing.

Sounds good.

Thanks again for being on.

Well, thank you.

Episode 58: Faith Hunter

An hour-long conversation with award-winning New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author Faith Hunter, author of the Jane Yellowrock and Soulwood series, the Junkyard Cats novella series, and the Rogue Mage series, as well as thrillers under the pen names Gary Hunter and Gwen Hunter.

Website
www.faithhunter.net

Facebook
@Official.Faith.Hunter

Twitter
@HunterFaith

Faith Hunter’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Kim Hunter.

Faith Hunter is the award-winning New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock series and the Soulwood series. She also wrote and sold the first of the Junkyard Cats novella series as an Audible Original. Junkyard Cats was the number-one selling book at Audible when released. She also has written three Rogue Mage series novels, two anthologies in that series, and coauthored a role-playing game.

She is the coauthor and author of sixteen thrillers under pen names Gary Hunter and Gwen Hunter. Altogether, she has forty-plus books and dozens of short stories in print ,and is juggling multiple projects. She sold her first book in 1989 and hasn’t stopped writing since.

Faith collects orchids and animal skulls, loves thunderstorms, and writes. She likes to cook soup, bake bread, garden, and kayak Class III whitewater rivers. She edits the occasional anthology and drinks a lot of tea.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me. This is so much fun.

Thanks so much for being on. We made the connection because we’re both with Penguin Random House, and I mentioned to my publicist that, you know, I had this podcast and I could talk to authors, and next thing I knew, there you were. So . . . 

I am just absolutely thrilled to be here. This is wonderful.

So, we’ll start with my usual sort of taking you back into the mists of time–someday I’m going to put reverb on that, THE MISTS OF TIME, and also at the end when I do the big philosophical questions.

Well, you’ve got a big voice. You can pull it off without the reverb. It’s very impressive.

Yeah, I echo in my own head. But, going back into the mists of time, how did you get interested in . . . most of us, it starts with books . . . reading and writing and particularly the kind of, you know, fantastical stuff that you write. How did that all come about for you?

First book in the Dragonriders
of Pern, original cover.

I started out as, like a lot of writers, as the weird kid in school who didn’t fit in anywhere, who fell between all of the cracks and just had a reputation of being strange. So, when you’re strange, you start reading, and you read strange things, and I read Pern and I read all of the old masters of science fiction, as they’re called, and I read fantasy and mystery and began to work my way through thrillers and just simply found a place where my head and my heart could be at peace, and that was in somebody else’s world, So, when I hit 10th grade, and my 10th-grade teacher told me that I had writing talent and I should make writing my career, I believed her, for better or worse. And thank you, Carol Koller (sp?), for telling me that that little gem of poetry, horrible poetry that I wrote, had merit. And she set my life, my 10th-grade teacher set my life on its course.

I’m glad you mentioned that because I often ask if there were, you know, teachers or mentors or something early on. And I think many of us, if we’re lucky, we encounter somebody like that. So, that was in the 10th grade.

Yes.

Did you do a lot of writing in high school, and did you share your writing with other people?

I did. And we had a literary magazine, which all of the literary pieces were turned in anonymously and I turned in about, I don’t know, forty. And when the literary magazine–and no one knew. Different people picked everything. And when the literary magazine came out, of about sixty pieces, something like twenty were mine, which cemented my teacher’s recognition of my work. And so, that was my first moment to really think that I might be a writer, to really believe that it was possible. And being my father’s daughter, he was an engineer, I started working to discover how writers lived, how they did their job. So, I spent hours at the local library talking with the librarians and letting them give me magazines to sit and study and asking permission, “May I please tear out this form here so I can get this magazine at my house?” And being given the opportunity to learn the hard things about writing, as it was at the time, which is you have to have a finished project to be paid, and you have to go through a process to be paid by New York. And I worked for three solid years through 10th, 11th, and 12th grade to educate myself on the business of writing as it was way back in the Dark Ages, and to teach myself as much about the tools of writing, the methods of writing, as I possibly could.

It’s interesting that you mentioned your father was an engineer. I’m married to an engineer. My wife is an engineer and a past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, in fact.

Wow.

And one thing I have found, being married to an engineer, is that engineers approach problems very analytically.

Yes.

More so that perhaps comes naturally to me. So sometimes, when she’s approaching something, I think, “Oh, I never thought of that question.”

I tend to, because of my father’s deliberate training in debate, I tend to think of worst-case scenarios, which is really, really helpful when you’re writing fiction because you want your character to face the worst thing possible short of death and come out some sort of a hero. That’s your goal as a writer, to make that transition from flawed character to successful character take place amidst the conflict that the characters are facing. So, because of Dad demanding that I debate him constantly, I think in two different ways when I’m writing. Part of me is deeply involved in the methodologies and the toolbox things. “How do you phrase this? How many times? What is the meter of my prose? Where’s the last time I used a gerund? Oh, this sentence runs on too long.” Versus the worst-case scenario, which is, “This isn’t bad enough. I have to make this worse for my reader to really get into this scene.” So, those two parts of my brain are always working together now, my mother’s creative self and my father’s engineering lessons in the reality of logic.

Where did you grow up?

All over the South. Dad worked for a paper company. And back in the day, big international paper companies would, because everybody was, I mean, they were everywhere because everyone was reading newspapers. And so, he was in the newspaper-making arm, and he was an electrical engineer. So we moved to different . . . we never spent more than four years in any one place. And usually, it was closer to two years. It was two years in Mississippi and two years in Louisiana and two–I mean, it was just all over the southeast. And then Dad took a job in a little town called Rock Hill, South Carolina, with a different paper company, and we stayed there for many, many years, and that’s where I went to school.

Now, when you went to university, did you study writing? Because you initially started in, what, biomedical laboratory work?

Yes. No, I went to tech school. This was long enough ago that you could go to a two-year tech school and the post-World War Two scholastic situation was still in place. So, you could go to school for two years in a science-based or an engineering-based job. And in a lot of them, you could then take the four-year test, and you could get credit for four years of school. So that’s what I did. Dad, in all of his debating, never told me that I was going to have to pay for my own schooling because he wasn’t going to do that, and so I had to go to school the cheapest way it was possible to do it. And that meant the local tech school and study really, really, really hard so I could pass that test, which I did. And I had a good job with benefits for 40 years before I felt brave enough and strong enough in my writing career to quit.

Yeah, I . . . when I was looking into writing, when I was in high school, I made the decision that you can’t actually make a living at it right off the front. And so I went into journalism so at least I was doing something with words.

I thought about journalism. And there was a local college I could have gone to. It would have taken me about six years to pay my way through or maybe eight. But the idea of working in hospitals and being helpful to people was another part of my personality, and clearly, I liked it enough to stay with it. So that was . . . and learning the sciences and having a science background gave me an opportunity to learn a different type of writing, because report writing is very much like journalistic writing in the sense that you have a different timeline and you have different verbiage and you have different methodologies of reaching a point. So that was helpful in its own odd, unique way.

Were there other helpful things about working in that job for all those years. Does that fit into your writing in any other way?

Well, let’s see. Yes. I worked for, spent many years at small hospitals, and in small hospitals, there’s an awful lot of job crossover. So, I took part with . . . I was the assistant for lots of autopsies, and I was the person who went to the morgue and drew vitreous fluid or did a suprapubic stick to get urine or did a heart stick to get blood from the accident victims or murder victims or whatever was down there. And I was a part of the in-house first-response team for all codes, which means if someone stopped breathing or crashed in surgery or whatever, I was right there and then took the samples back to the lab and actually did the processing. So, in a small hospital, you very often get to do and see more, a lot more, than the average person does today. I don’t know if that’s the answer you really wanted, but, yes, I’ve put all of that, all of that learning together. So, when I describe a dead body, at any point, I can do it at least a modicum of success because I’ve seen it, and when I need an injury that doesn’t kill someone, I’ve also got that. I’ve seen everything. So, yeah, it was very handy to my writing.

I usually say that no matter what you do, you’ll find elements of it useful in your fiction writing, it’s like you have to have something in the tank before you can, you know, have anything to write about.

Absolutely. People who sit in an ivory tower don’t know how to write about real-life problems. They have to get out there in some kind of a trench. Now, it could be politics. It could be . . . it can be anything. But sitting in your basement or your living room or anywhere on your heinie and not being involved in the world does not prepare you for the writing life. You have to have a background or a knowledge, not just of the English language, but of the world.

And I would think, working in that kind of environment, you also saw a wide range of people.

Yes. And a wide range of victims and a wide range of perpetrators and a wide range of everything that . . . to start out with I didn’t have the life skills to deal with because I started my on-the-job training at 18. And that was difficult,

I would imagine. Were you writing, then, all through this time as you got your two-year . . . and then into the workforce?

I gave myself two years off from writing. I did no writing during those two years except what I had to do for school, which was report writing, essays, the usual college stuff you still have to do even if you’re at a tech school. You still have to take writing courses and English courses and your basic math and that sort of thing. But I gave myself time off because my job was to get a four-year education in two years. So, the day I got out of school, I walked across the stage, and the day after that I went to work researching for my next book, which had been percolating–my first book, I should say–which had been percolating in the back of my mind for two years.

Did you take any formal writing training at any time? I always ask that because some writers do, and then they say, but it wasn’t very useful.

I did. I took, uh, three options in the tech school. One was actually a . . . oh, gosh, that’s been a long time ago . . . it was a creative writing course of some sort, I don’t remember what now, and then when I was trying to write my first book, I took a poetry course from a two-time Gutenberg winner at the local college and I took a short-story course from a writer who was a critically acclaimed writer and also taught on the side. I learned a lot from those two classes, and the poetry class taught me to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, action words, all the things that you need to make your prose really strong. And the short story course taught me things about plot and conflict and story arc that I needed. So, those two courses did come in handy. I don’t think I needed much else at that point, and I was ready to go because, as I said before, I studied hard for three years. I read every book I could find on writing. I read every magazine. Every possible writing magazine came to my house, and I studied them and marked them up and dog-eared pages and–not of the books because I got those from the library–but of my magazines, I made it a point to study. And if you really work hard at it, you can teach yourself a lot of things in life.

What was that first look, and how long did it take you then to complete it and presumably submit it? And did it get published?

It actually was finished, and I had about two inches tall of rejection letters–because back then there were probably 150 publishers out there. And I put it aside when I met a cop in the emergency room one night, and I heard him talking about wanting to write a book when he retired. We got chatting and started working together, our first lines were . . . I wish I could remember that first line that we came up with together . . . something about a warehouse with the stink of winter and rats that only a good raising could cure. And at the time, it sounded very poetic to me. But that first book–that second book for me, our first book together–took five years for us to write and the first editor who looked at it bought it.

What was its title?

Either Death Sentence or Death Warrant, I’m not sure which came first, but it was a two-book series, it was a police procedural. Long, long ago.

And you’ve written a great many since then, forty-plus, I believe your bio said.

Yes, I only count up when I think I might have hit another ten. So, I don’t know where I am right now. I do know that I have one book coming out in July, the end of July, which is Spells for the Dead. And I have a . . . I’m in the middle of rewrites for the Junkyard Cats number two, which doesn’t have a real title yet, but I’m calling it Junkyard Bargain. Just for funsies. So I know I’ve got those still coming, and then I have turned and book fourteen in the Jane Yellowrock series, which is my most popular series at this point, and it is in the hands of the editor waiting for that lovely thing writers call a rewrite letter but is really the letter of devastation and misery.

Well, we’re going to talk about that because we’re going to talk about your process. So, first of all, then, maybe we should have a synopsis of Spells for the Dead.  And I want to talk about the Junkyard Cat series, too, because I want to ask you about the difference between writing direct for audio and writing for print.

Oh, dear, you want to know about . . . and of course, my brain is not on Spells for the Dead. Wait a minute.

I know, something that you did a long time ago because you’re working on the next thing. I know how that goes.

Right. I just…wait a minute. Let me see. Let me pull it up so I can look at it. Wait a minute. It’s horrible when you have to . . . sometimes I can’t even remember my own titles. That really happens a lot. Okay, well, Nell Ingram is the main character in the Soulwood series. And that series is a paranormal police procedural slash with . . . well, fantasy, with a little tiny bit of romance woven through it, not enough to turn off my male readers, but, you know, enough to to make my female readers happy, Nell works in Tennessee, out of Knoxville, and she’s called to the Tennessee mansion of a country music star and finds a disturbing scene–which takes you back to something we said just a few minutes ago–she sees dead bodies rapidly decaying before everyone’s eyes. And the witch on her team has never seen magic that can steal life forces like this. So Nell and the team have to go in and solve this mystery and prevent these new dark magics from spiraling out of control.

Okay. And what’s Junkyard Cats about?

Junkyard Cats is science fiction. And it is fabulous. I am having the most fun with it. The series is about post-World War Three, post-alien invasion, and forced peace on the Earth by the aliens because we were destroying ourselves and our planet, and my character is in hiding because she was accidentally contaminated by two different kinds of nanobots and they’ve done something to her. So, Shining Smith is her name, she’s a former biker with the Outlaws, and she runs Smith’s Junk and Scrap Yard in the middle of West Virginia, in the middle of the West Virginian desert. And the Cats part is because she has cats, which you discover at some point in book one are actually sentient thanks to her.

Hmm. Those both sound very interesting. What were . . . okay, this is a cliché question. “Where do you get your ideas?” But it’s a valid question. How do ideas come to you? How do you get the seeds of stories? These ones specifically, but in general, how is that process work for you?

Well, of course, when you’re writing a series, you don’t have to worry about worldbuilding or character creation or character relationships, all of those are already in place. So, when I’m working on the Soulwood series or the Jane Yellowrock series, what I’m planning is mostly plot-related and character-development related. That process is very different because you start out in the middle of a well-designed, hopefully, world, and you bring in the little bits of the world that you need for this particular book. But you have to also be smart and know that maybe your readers haven’t read all of the other books, and so you have to be very clear and concise about the necessary history for your character that you present in this new book. So, you start out in a different place from a stand-alone book or the beginning of a new series.

So, when I start with a Jane Yellowrock or Soulwood book, it’s usually with plot. Who’s died, who’s in trouble? What conflict are they facing? Is it natural or is it mundane? Is it magical? Is it, in the case of the science fiction, is it technological? Is it related to the damage that was done to the Earth in the war? What problem is this now-established character facing that will do two things, number one, challenge the new and the remaining weaknesses in that character, that’s number one, and number two, take that character through a journey where that character has to change and become better or worse in order to accomplish the end. So, if I’m just looking at an established character and all I’m doing is the plot planning, that’s one type of book to start. And I do that with an extremely heavily detailed seven- to thirty-five-page single-spaced outline.

That was my next question.

Now, when I’m doing something brand-new, for instance, Junkyard Cats, all I knew was the beginning and the end. My proposal to myself was about two pages, and it was as much worldbuilding as anything else. And then I realized, of course, I have to have help. So, I got two physicists to help me set up the changes in technology in the world. And they were extremely helpful. And I got some readers handy who would be able to help me with some genetic changes. So, then I just, for the first time in literally well, since 2006, I pantsed something. I flew by the seat of my pants, and I actually wrote the outline so I would have a way to keep track of what had happened as I wrote each day’s writing. So, I would write what I wanted to that day and I would transfer it to the outline. Then I would go back and write the next day’s work, and I would transfer the necessary information to the outline. And then about halfway through, I realized I needed to start my bible because I was loving this. And the bible is all of the things that are going to happen in a series. And in this case, it was technology and characters. So, I have about a twenty-five page single-spaced bible now, and I’ve only got one novella published.

So, the process is different. I was . . . when I started Junkyard Cats, it was all about the creation of this character, the creation of the world, and how much did I need and how much was just fluff and how much do I put away and how much satisfies me as a writer. Because sometimes, as a writer, I need to be satisfied with the craft of writing. I need to have that good poetic feel to things, to my work, that makes me happy and may not do anything for my reader. So, it’s a juggling aspect when I’m pantsing it. It’s very different. It’s . . . Okay, it’s more fun. Let me just say this right up front. Pantsing a novella is WAY more fun than writing from an outline.

When you started working on that, were you thinking direct to audio, or did that come along later, or how did that work?

I finished it, and I sent it to my agent, and I said . . . let’s see, how did that work? Oh, I remember. Audible had asked me if I had anything that they could use as an Audible original. This was some time ago. And I said, “Nope, not a thing. Everything is under contract. But I’ve kind of got an idea in the back of my head, if I ever get time to write it, I’ll let my agent know.” So, I finished all of this, and I sent it to her, and I said, “I doubt that this is anything that Audible would be interested in, but if you think they would be, here.” And she read it and made some significant suggestions, because she’s the excellent, wonderful agent she is. Am I permitted to say her name?

Yes, of course.

Okay, Lucianne Diver of the Night Agency is fabulous, and she made lots of suggestions, which I incorporated into a rewrite. And then she took it to Audible, and they bought it as an Audible original. So it is still under . . . they had a six-month exclusive on it, where it can’t be in print anywhere, and the six months will be out at the end of July, so sometime in August, the end of August, I think, it will come out as an e-book from a small press.

I’m sure you’ve had . . . most of your books have been audiobooks. Do you ever listen to them?

Really, I don’t. I hate to say that because my fans adore my narrator. They think she’s the cat’s meow. Khristine Hvam can do all of the voices, and she’s really good about keeping them in place between book and book and from the beginning to the end, and the characters always sound like they’re supposed to. But if I listen to the way she speaks my characters’ voices, it won’t be what I hear inside my head. So, no, I don’t, and that’s embarrassing, but–love you, Khristine!–but no, have not ever, ever listened to a book.

That seems to be fairly common in authors I’ve talked to. And I haven’t listened to . . . Except for the ones that I commissioned myself and I had to do the proof-listening, and I liked them, fortunately . . . but yeah, the ones that I’ve had that have been done by some other company, I’ve never actually listened to the whole thing. And it’s kind of the same thing. It’s like, well, that’s not quite the way it sounded in my head, so.

Right. I mean . . . and then when you go back to starting the next book, do you . . . I would have to go back and reread a whole bunch in a previous book to find that voice again, because my characters . . . My books don’t sound alike. The authorial voice is totally different in every book, I mean, in every series, so . . . The way I write, the syntax, the punctuation, every little thing is different in the Jane Yellowrock books from the books that I wrote as Gwen, which are much more purple. Those have a lot more flavor to them, in a sense, because the characters are not warriors, and Jane is a warrior, so my authorial voice is so different. If I listen to anything, I would have to go back and reread, and that would annoy me, I guess, some.

What’s your actual writing process? I think I read that you aim for a certain number of pages a day.

I do.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Well, COVID has changed the answer to that. Normally, I . . . when I was writing and trying to get a book out every six months and working full-time, I wrote for 12 hours a day, five days a week, and then worked to 16- to 17-hour days at the hospital. And while I was fast, I was doing two books a year, so I was always behind, and a good week was 10,000 words. Then I quit the job and realized I was killing myself, so I switched from a book every six months to a book every eight months. And that was much more doable. I was not killing myself anymore. And so, if I could do, let’s see, how much would that be, if I could do 8,000 words a week to 10,000 words a week over seven days, that was a lot easier on me.

And then COVID hit, and I can’t go anywhere, so I’m back up writing way faster, and I’m getting caught up on all of my deadlines, and I’m not sitting at the desk but about six to eight hours a day. And it’s pretty wonderful. So, I hate to say that COVID has been beneficial in any way, but it makes me concentrate on my writing so I don’t have to think about the world. And I think . . . I know that a lot of my writing friends have had the opposite effect where they can’t think about their writing because the only thing they can think about is the world. And it’s horrible, and everything’s on fire. But for me, I’m hiding from that when I’m writing, I’m not watching the news, I’m not checking Facebook or Twitter, I’m not going anywhere but into this world and I can sit and write, and it’s pouring out of me, and it’s wonderful. Now, I don’t know if that will continue. What has it done to you? I mean, I’m really curious about how other people have reacted to this.

Hasn’t really changed much for me. I’m . . . you know, I work at home. I was writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of here. So, I would go up on Tuesday morning, and I stayed overnight, and I was in the library for two days meeting with writers and going . . . you know, stuff like that. And all that changed was that I no longer made the trip to Saskatoon and I just sat here and did it all virtually, and it actually benefited me because I wasn’t spending money on that hotel room one night a week up in Saskatoon so that that all went by, and, you know, I always sit in my house and type, so it hasn’t really changed much from my point of view. But yeah, I’ve heard that, you know, different things for different people. I assume from what you said that you mostly write at home anyway, you’re not a go out into the coffee shops or scribble under a tree with a pen or something.

Absolutely not. I want my computer system set up exactly as it’s set up. When we go somewhere to paddle, I still have to write, and I take all my computer system with me. So we travel in an RV, and it has a big, deep dash. So, when we are stopped, and I am working, I still have my two great big screens and my laptop to the side, and so that gives me two keyboards. So, I have two full systems to write with because, especially now that when I’m writing a series, I have to have so many different files open. I’ve got to have the bible open. I’ve got to have maybe the previous book open. I might have to have the writing order and the time schedule open. I might have to have the editor’s notes open. So, when I’m writing, I always have at least four files open at a time. And all of them are related to this project that I’m working on. So, I have to . . . I just . . . when I go somewhere else, I replicate my office.

What . . . once you have that first draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you have a very clean draft? When you get to the end you’re done, you don’t have to go through it again? How does that work for you?

Well. I’ve been writing for a long time. When my father was passing away, I had about three years there where I did not turn in very clean drafts, and I felt very sorry for my editor. And they kindly, at Penguin Random House, kept working with me through those three years. But normally, except for those three years, I start out the day revising everything I wrote the day before and then putting in another X number of words to get to where I need to be for that day to meet a deadline for the week. So, for instance, if I know I’ve got a 40,000-word document due on Monday, and I’ve got seven days to do it, then each day I’ve got to . . . each week I’ve got to do 10,000 words. So I just divide it up, and normally I’m able to make it. Lately, though, I’ve given . . . I’ve had some health issues myself, so I’ve given myself a little bit longer. I’m not pushing myself. I’m just letting my COVID brain write all the time, and I’m not watching word count as much as I did before. So . . . everything changes. It just . . . life changes, people get sick, people die, your dog dies, you, I mean . . . you and your husband get to go on vacation to Ireland, and you don’t write the whole time you’re there, and then you come home with all these ideas and you have a brand-new concept, and you sit down, and you write like crazy. So, life is just odd, and the process is . . . the writing processes always have to change based on the reality of the world.

As they say, life is just one darn thing after another.

Yes, it is.

Do you . . . it doesn’t sound like you have beta readers or anybody like that. Or do you?

I used to not, but I do now. I have one beta reader who keeps up with the timeline and the bible and makes sure that all of the characters are where they should be at the start of one book, based on where they were, where they last appeared in the series, So if I’ve killed off the character, the character is not back in this book. So, I have her, and she is in . . . 

Well, in your book, couldn’t that happen? In your series?

Yes, well, it did three times by accident. And that forced me to reintroduce to . . . not to reintroduce but to introduce . . . an accidental time-loop situation. So, that gave the book, gave the Jane Yellowrock series five more books, because I made that accident, so no one’s complaining except the poor person who has to keep up with what I’ve done. And she was . . . the timeline editor has also been a non-fiction editor, so she’s really good about, um, the broad strokes in the editing process. So she’s a beta reader, but I also now . . . she started out as a beta reader. I now pay her to be my timeline editor. And I have a genetics person who does plants and people genetics. And she’s also my, one of my PR people. I have personal PR people as well as the wonderful people at Penguin. So, yes, I have two really regular beta readers that I use, and then this last time, I have two people who are . . . three, excuse me, three new people who are beta readers for mindset and weapons from so that a new character, I’ve never written in his brain before, so that he thinks properly when he’s faced with danger. My character, Eli Younger, is a former Ranger, active duty in the Middle East. And when he comes home, he’s injured. Now I’m writing a story where he has to face a bad guy, that he doesn’t have any of the weapons needed to fight. So, part of this new novella I’m working on is through his point of view. And I needed to make sure that the weapons he would choose, the number of shots fired at this creature, the way he would, his body mechanics would, work during a fight and the way his brain would work, because those are all parts of one whole. And so, I have three brand-new beta readers who were very helpful in this new novella.

Once you get the book submitted–and you mentioned the letter of devastation from the editor–what says what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to do in the editorial pass?

Really, really good stuff. I have the best editor at Penguin ever. I’ve already told her if she ever retires, I’m quitting, and she laughs, and I go, “I might be serious here!”, but she catches things like plot holes like, “This makes no sense. You said this here, then you said this here forty pages later, and they have no connectivity. So you need to address this, and you need to bring this. You need to create a connectivity between these two events, and your character needs to work through this.” And she’ll say things like, “Your character sounds mean.” Or, “Your character sounds like you,” or, “Why would your character know this? This character does not have any backstory that gives him or her a knowledge base in this area. And you sound like an expert.” Because, you know, I did my research, but off the fly, a character wouldn’t have time to. So, it’s not just the nit-picky things, it’s the big, broad strokes of the novel. It usually starts out with, “This was so much fun. I always loved getting back into this. Here’s five single-spaced paragraphs of what’s wrong with it. And then here’s all the nit-picky things,” the next five pages, single-spaced.

And who is your wonderful editor?

My wonderful editor is Jessica Wade at Ace at Penguin Random House. And I cannot recommend her enough if you can get in with her. She’s fabulous.

Well, my editor is the only editor . . . well, I’ve worked with multiple editors . . . but the only one in my major publisher is Sheila Gilbert at DAW, just down the hall from Ace, actually, in the Penguin building.

Very good. Well, but they’re all working at home now, so . . . 

Yeah, yeah. She’s actually is in New Jersey.

Is she? 

Yeah. But what’s interesting about Sheila is that . . . because I talk to authors, and everybody gets these written letters and Sheila doesn’t give you a written letter. We have very long phone conversations, which is, you know, just different. But it’s the same thing, you know, “This character can’t do that, or never set that up,” or, you know, it’s the same sort of thing. And when I work with new writers, as I did as writer-in-residence, there’s occasionally, people are concerned about working with editors. They think they’re going to somehow damage their deathless prose or something. And I explain that editors actually make things better. That seems to be your experience.

Yes. I would not work without an editor. I just I wouldn’t do it. And when I say an editor, let me back up. In case someone is out there who doesn’t know about editors, there’s multiple kinds. There’s a developmental editor, which is what Jessica is, and there’s copy editors, and those are the people who do the timeline, nit-picky, but very important stuff like, you killed this character on page 12, and they’re back doing a fight scene over here. Or, you change this character’s gender midway through the scene, or you started out in a truck and now they’re in an airplane, that kind of thing. And then there’s the line editors who do the even more nit-picky things like fixing quotations and that sort of thing and making sure there’s no duplicated words. Jessica can do all of those, but her primary importance to my work is as a developmental editor. And she rips the plot to shreds, which is what I asked her to do when we first met.

Now, you’ve been writing a long time, have you been surprised by how people have embraced your words over all these years? Or pleased, at least?

I don’t know if happy or pleased fit exactly what I feel, I think embarrassed and humbled and sort of tongue-tied when people gush? I just . . . I don’t know what to say when people like what I’ve written, I’ve learned to say “thank you” with some sort of regularity in the appropriate–most of the time–in the appropriate spot. But I will admit, it’s difficult to believe that people like my work.

They seem to. Well, we’re towards the end here, and so now it’s time for the big philosophical questions, which is not that big. Well, maybe it’s a big question. I don’t know if it’s particularly philosophical. But the question is, why do you do this? Why do you write? And on a bigger scope, why do any of us write and then, being more specific, why this kind of stuff, this kind of science fiction and fantasy stuff?

Uh, well, I’ve written . . . let me answer the last one first. The last part first. I’ve written science fiction/fantasy because I got bored with the format required from thrillers and mystery. I know that sounds dreadful to all of my mystery fans, but they were always current-world driven, and that put limitations on.the writing methodology that I just got tired of. And I had always loved, back when I was even more strange than I am now, that strange young girl, that odd young girl who buried her nose in books, I had always liked other worlds and flying dragons and knights in shining armor and more importantly, women who could fight their own battles. So, I got tired of writing in the real world, which to me, mystery is, and I wanted to write other things, and that’s where I am now.

And it’s so much more fulfilling to me as a creator because it takes a lot more effort. When you’re writing mystery or even just . . . anything . . . that is real-world based you are kept in these constraints, and. They’re known, and they’re easy. When you create a new world, a new world system, you have to have the checks and balances in place before you start, and you have to know how they differ from reality and how they make your world harder to live in for your characters. And that’s something that a lot of real-world writers don’t realize. They actually will make fun of people who write fantasy and sci-fi, and you go, “Wait a minute, I have to do everything you’re doing, in a world with entirely different rules and many more pitfalls, so stop and think what you’re saying, you’re actually taking the easy way out. And I know that because I used to write that way.” And they tend to get very quiet.

And why, in general, tell stories of any sort?

Because I’m still that strange little girl with a beast living inside me. I need to write. I write for my mental health, I write because when I wake up in the morning, I want the day to go well, and I can make sure it does in my writing. I can bring it to a point of fabulous conclusion if I choose at the end of each day, where something great happens, or something horrible happens that I know is going to be solved tomorrow or the day after that. And there is a blessing in living that way that I don’t have when I don’t write. And I have thought many times over the years of giving up and when I would retire and if I would retire. And now I’m having so much fun writing again, now that I’m pantsing this new series, this new novella series, I don’t want to quit anymore. I’m back to, “Oh, this is fun. Yay!” And I’m looking forward to the new projects.

This podcast is called The Worldshapers, and we’ve talked about the worldbuilding side of that. But the other side of that is, do you hope that your fiction . . . I know, I don’t think very many stories have actually shaped the world, a few classics, maybe. But what do you hope that your readers . . . are they shaped in some way by your fiction? Even if it’s just be entertained.

I . . . yeah. I think what I get right now is, ‘I’m so glad I have your books to read. I just discovered them, and I’m hiding from the world in your books. And I’m so glad you have a female character who doesn’t sit on the train tracks and scream, ‘Help me, help me!'” Like Dudley Doolittle’s characters, female characters, always did. They’re very happy that my characters are take-charge women and take-charge fighters and go after the bad guys who are hurting the underdogs, and that makes them happy. When I was writing as Gwen, it was a different thematic thing, although my characters did take charge and kill their own snakes, as we say in the South. They lived in a world that was different, and they had more back-up. They had people they could depend on most of the time to help. So, it was different . . . it was a different world. And what people got from that was, “Thank you for addressing this issue in this wonderful story you told,” about polygamy or about some trigger element that this person needed to see in print at the time and it would help them through some problem that is ongoing in their past and now in their present. So there’s . . . it’s different things for different people, and I’m just happy people are reading my books, it makes me weep with . . . mm, I said that word, and I almost wanted to. It makes me weep with happiness, I guess, I’m going to go back to your word. It doesn’t feel real. But then, I write fiction! So, there you go.

And you have mentioned what you’re working on, but maybe just reiterate what you’re working on now.

I am working on novella number two in the Junkyard Cat series right now, it’s being rewritten to go back to the editor, hopefully soon. I have Spells for the Dead, which is Nell Ingram, and the series of Soulwood. It is number five in that series. It’s coming out in July.

I think I called it Souls of the Dead when I mentioned it.

Spells for the Dead and Soulwood, so . . . and I do that too, and I have to stop and think . . . that’s why I had to go look it up when you ask me what the title was, because I couldn’t remember. And then I have turned in True Dead, which is Jane Yellowrock fourteen, to the lovely and brutal and fabulous Jessica Wade. And so, I’m waiting for that rewrite letter, and I hope that letter of devastation stays at least another couple of weeks away and I’ll be all caught up. Yay!

And where can people find you online?

I am on Facebook. You can just hunt for Faith Hunter Author on Facebook. I have FaithHunter.net, where I have a website, I don’t do a whole lot on it. And then I have two fan pages, or three, on Facebook, which you can find if you look for Faith Hunter Discussion Group and Faith Hunter Spoiler Group, you can do a search for tha, and it should pull both of them up…all of them up.

Okay. That’s kind of the end of our time. So, thanks so much for being on. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Thank you for letting me ramble on. It was incoherent much of the time, but you’re very good at pulling me back on track. Thank you.

Thank you.