Episode 41: Mary Robinette Kowal

An hour-plus chat with Mary Robinette Kowal, Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning author of the Lady Astronaut trilogy (Tor Books) and many more novels and short stories, member of the Writing Excuses podcast, professional puppeteer, and audiobook narrator.

Website
maryrobinettekowal.com

Twitter
@MaryRobinette

Instagram
@MaryRobinetteKowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Lady Astronaut trilogy and the historical fantasy novels The Glamourist History series and Ghost Talkers. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo Awards, the RT Reviews Award for Best Fantasy novel, and the Nebula and Locus Awards. Her stories have appeared in Strange HorizonsAsimov’s, several year’s best anthologies, and her collections Word Puppets and Scenting the Dark and Other Stories. Her novel Calculating Stars is one of only eighteen novels to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards in a single year.

As a professional puppeteer and voice actor, Mary Robinette has performed for Lazy Town, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two Unima-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve, and she records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow. Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters.

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Mary Robinette.

Thank you so much for having me.

I’m glad to have you. I have to confess, I haven’t quite finished Calculating Stars. I was working on it, so I’m about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way through. But you won’t give any spoilers anyway, because I’m going to get you to synopsize here in a little bit for people who haven’t read it.

Okay.

But I’m enjoying it very much. And not least because I’m married to an engineer…

Ah, yes.

…who identifies with some of the situations in the story.

Yes. Yes. I’ve found that the people in STEM have a strong connection to certain aspects, especially women in STEM.

Well, before we get to that, I’ll take you back into—I always say this, it’s becoming a cliché on the podcast—I will take you back into the mists of time, to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing, and specifically writing science fiction. How you got started, in other words, and maybe a little bit about, you know, where you grew up and all that kind of stuff.

So, I grew up in North Carolina. My dad worked for IBM and he used to take me to visit him at work sometimes. They had the…it was in the days when the computers were still ginormous rooms and we didn’t yet have personal computers. There were gerbil tubes connecting the buildings. The first programming that I did was my name with punch cards. And so that was…it felt very science fictional. It felt very much like what you’d see on the Jetsons and things like that. And then we also would watch…like, I got connected to Doctor Who, you know, Tom Baker was my doctor. And we listened to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio. So there is not a point in my life where I remember discovering science fiction, it was something that was just always present. Like, the earliest books that I read that I have concrete memories of are things like Enchantress from the Stars.

I remember that one.

Yeah, so good. And you know, of course, other things like A Wrinkle in Time, and all of these books, which were just shelved as books. But I gravitated to the ones that had a fantastic element. When I started writing, which I did pretty young, my mom sent me to a writing workshop camp. I was basically writing the things that I was reading, and since I was reading science fiction and fantasy, it seemed only natural that that’s what I was also writing. My friends also were into that.

So, some of the earliest stuff that I was writing was actually…we had this, we called it “The Note.” It was a notebook. And we would pass it to each other between classes and write a co-operative story and then pass it to the next person who would pick it up and continue on. So, it was very much a part of my life, but I was also one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so…

I was an art major—I went to school to be an art major—and I performed with a puppet company, a puppet troupe, in high school, and then my junior year of college left to do an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, intending to go back…and never did, and then had a twenty-five-year career in puppetry. But the first ten of that, more or less, somewhere in there, I stopped writing because I was getting my creative jollies from puppetry. So for me, it’s all varying forms of storytelling.

You’re the first one I’ve talked to who’s done puppetry. I’ve talked to several authors, myself included, who have a theatrical background. And I always like to ask if that theatrical side, and I mean, puppetry is a form of theatre, it’s a little different than moving actors around on stage, but you’re still moving, you know, things in relationship to each other and characters interacting with each other. Have you found that your puppetry has helped you with your writing?

Yes, absolutely. It absolutely has. First of all, because puppeteers are actors and we are doing theatre. It’s just that the…rather than putting on a costume, we have an external manifestation. But we are still acting. We…the derogatory term that we have for poor people who do not do puppetry are “meat puppets,” or “meat actors.” Meat actors is what we usually go with, or a “fleshy” as opposed to a “plushy.”.

I’m going to remember that.

Yeah. But it is very much acting. I think of it as the Ginger Rogers of theatre. I have to do everything that you’d have to do, backwards in high heels. So, there’s multiple advantages to it, one of which is that, because I am working an inanimate object, my job as a puppeteer requires me to take the body language that we do naturally, that we often don’t even think about, we just do it, break it apart into its semantic components, and then reconstruct it in an inanimate object in a form that is human-readable.

That is essentially what I am doing as a writer, as well. I have to understand the basic components, semantic pieces of body language, and here I am, the tool that I’m using to reconstruct them, are words on a page. But the basic building blocks or components are the same. For instance, if someone is curious about something, they’ll do what we call an aggressive motion, which is a movement towards. If there’s something they don’t want to engage with, they’ll do a regressive motion. And while it’s very easy to do that with a puppet—and as an actor, you’ll do it without even thinking about it, very naturally—on the page, it also plays out the same way. There’s a very big difference between, “‘What did you say?” She leaned across the table,” and, “‘What did you say?’ She pushed back from the table.” One of those is the aggressive motion, one is the regressive, but it tells you a great deal about the character’s reaction without having to use a Tom-Swifty dialogue tag to denote tone.

That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but yeah, I can…in a way, our characters are puppets, and we are making them come alive, something that is actually not alive. We are trying to communicate that to the reader.

Yeah. With theater, with writing, regardless of which form you’re using, I think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is to create an emotional response in our audience’s brain, whether they are reading or viewing. But the things that we have emotional responses to, those actually remain fairly consistent from medium to medium. It’s just the mechanical technique that you use to convey it. And that’s one of the things that I’m trained in as a puppeteer, that there are principles that make a puppet look alive, but the mechanics differ when you move from one style to another. Like, the mechanical movement that I will do with my arm for a regressive motion if I’m doing something that’s very much like a Muppet is completely different than the mechanical motion that I’m doing, also with my arms, but holding a marionette control. It’s mechanically very different. But the thing that I’m trying to create for the audience, that illusion, is still the same illusion. It’s still that regressive motion, or it’s still the sense of muscle, where I’m using a compress/expand to mimic the moment when you bend your knees to jump. All of those things are still there. It’s still trying to create that same effect for the audience. And I feel that way when I move to writing, it’s like I’m still trying to create that effect, it’s just I have a different mechanical tool now.

And when did you then move back into writing after your twenty-five years of puppetry? What brought that about?

Well, I moved back probably about fifteen years into the puppetry career because I had a severe puppet injury. And again, people don’t think about puppetry as being particularly dangerous, but I was doing  Little Shop of Horrors and working an eighty-pound puppet, and we had something go a tiny bit wrong onstage. We’d done it three months without any injuries, and just a little bit wrong and the puppet sheared to the side. Someone hit it on stage at a time that I had it up off the ground. No one should have touched it. And I tried to control it, and something in my wrist went pfft! I essentially popped the ligament. It was…for various reasons, it was complicated and I wound up in a cast for a year, and then did another year of physical therapy after that to regain range of motion.

During that time, kind of simultaneously with that, my brother had moved to China with his kids, working for the State Department, and I wanted to stay connected to the kids, but they are not really going to…it was before Skype was really a thing, so I started writing a serial for them, and remembered that I really enjoyed writing. In hindsight, I understand that what happened was…the reason I had stopped for a long time was because I was getting my creative jollies from the puppetry and that it uses, puppet design and construction uses, exactly the same parts of my brain as writing. It’s all worldbuilding, character creation, problem-solving. So when I could no longer do that, I had to take a substantial break from it, it gave me the energy to apply that in another form, one that I hadn’t visited for a while.

I often say that…it’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar. I was a huge Dungeons and Dragons player in university and one reason I quit playing was because I looked at the stack of maps and, you know, characters and monsters and stuff that I had built up for my world in Dungeons and Dragons and said, “You know, that’s exactly the energy I should be putting into writing my fiction.” And I hardly ever played again after that.

Yeah.

It was the same thing. You’re using the same muscles, but it’s, if you use them all in one way, it’s harder sometimes to use it the other way.

Yeah, I used to play D&D with a group when I was in high school as well. Although, you know, in high school I would do anything to avoid doing homework. So, I would just write and play D&D. But now I will only do a one-off for exactly those reasons, because the, you know, the narrative is so seductive and interesting and fun. And I as I get older I have less and less energy.

And I think I’m ten years older than you, so I definitely identify. So, when did you break in? And how?

So, my first sale was 2005—I think that’s correct—to a small press magazine called The First Line. And I love this small press. They…the theory is that the first line of anything is so important. But if you hand the same first line to Mark Twain, you know, if you hand him, “Call me Ishmael,” he will not write Moby Dick. He will write something totally different. So, the first line gives you a first line, and then every story in that issue begins with the same first line, and they’re all wildly different. So, my first couple of sales were to them, and then I started selling to other markets, as well.

And you started with short fiction.

Mm-hmmm.

And did quite well at short fiction, looking at the awards and so forth. What did that…were you surprised by the level of acceptance and appreciation that your fiction begin to garner?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I should say that what I actually started writing were novels, but I had been told that if you wanted to break in, you needed to write short fiction, which it turns out is not true. Jim C. Hines did a survey, and it turns out that debut authors, when you ask them, “How did you break in?”, whether with short fiction first or just straight to novel sales, that it was actually 50/50. But I like short fiction quite a bit. And I think that it was very good for me because it allowed me to experiment with a lot of different things without having to commit so many words. So it’s like doing a bunch of, using the D&D metaphor again, it’s like doing a one-off campaign versus something that’s a multi-session campaign. So, doing a one-off, it was very easy to say, “Oh, this time I’m going to I’m going to focus on character and try to hone my character skills,” or, “This time I’m going to focus on description.” But I was also…I was surprised at how quickly I was able to start making sales, but also in hindsight, it’s not surprising, because by that point I had spent fifteen years coming to understand narrative and audience. And so much of what I know from theater translates over. Some of it doesn’t, but so much of it does. So. in hindsight, I had a leg up when I came back to prose.

So when did the novels start coming along, then?

So, as I said, I had started with novels. So the thing, the serial, that I wrote for my niece and nephew was…it turned into a novel very quickly, which was actually the thing that made me go, “Huh.” Because I had started doing it just kind of for kicks. And then I got a little bit into it and thought, “I think I have something here. How do you write a novel?” and started trying to sort that out. And in the process of that, at some point, not long after I started doing this, I discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that this was a great thing, and I was very excited about it. And I did my first one and it was a murder mystery—and let me tell you that doing a murder mystery without outlining is questionable as a choice. And then the second one that I did was Shades of Milk and Honey, which was my first novel, first published novel. So…there was another novel I call Novel Zero. That was the novel that I wrote in high school through college and then finished on my second or third year on tour. But Shades of Milk and Honey was the, I guess the third…the second novel that I completed after I got serious about it.

But yeah, I did NaNoWriMo. And we, you know, I shopped that…I had shopped the thing that I wrote for my niece and nephew, but it has first-novel problems that I am not invested enough in the book now to go back and fix.

Did your niece and nephew enjoy it?

They did.

Well, that’s the main thing.

Yeah, exactly.

Well, of course, your novel that just won the Hugo Award and the Nebula and Locus, Calculating Stars, we’ll move on to talk about that as an example of your overall creative process. And you know… I know it’s a cliché, and I know writers hate to be asked it…the question is, “Where did the idea come from?” But, on a bigger scale, how do you generally generate ideas for stories? How does that work for you?

Sure. So, the funny thing is, actually, the...Calculating Stars began with a…

You know what? I skipped over one very important thing. You should give a quick description of Calculating Stars for people who haven’t read it…

Oh, sure.

…before we start talking about it.

OK. Calculating Stars is set in 1952. It’s Apollo-era science fiction, it’s women-centered. I slam an asteroid into Washington, D.C., and kick off the space program fast and early and with international cooperation. My main character, Elma York, is a mathematician and a pilot and she is working with her husband, who was the lead engineer, rocket designer, for the NACA—which was a real organization, it was NASA’s precursor—and becomes the lead engineer for the International Aerospace Coalition. And she realizes that the asteroid has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. So, we’re actually looking at an extinction event, which gives impetus to get people off the planet. As a side note, I will just let people know, the science…you know how you see those disaster films and there’s an asteroid coming at the Earth and they divert it into the ocean.

It would be a bad idea.

It turns out that’s a really bad idea, because when you have an asteroid come through, it tears a hole in the atmosphere. And then you get something called ejecta, which ejects part of the planet up into the upper atmosphere. And then, if it’s rocks, it’ll fall back down. If it’s water, what happens is the water vapor gets locked in the upper atmosphere. It doesn’t precipitate out, and you can trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. There is some speculation that this might be what happened to Venus. So, anyway…

I was just going to say, my feeling when that initially comes up and she does the math and realizes that’s what going to happen is, it felt very much like a Titanic: The Musical, which I’ve been in, and Titanic, the actual thing, which is that the engineer went down, took one look at what had happened and said, “This ship is going down,” even though there were still, you know, two or three hours of floating around and people not believing it.

Yeah.

It was inevitable at that point. And I had that same feeling when I got to that point in the book.

Yeah, that was a…like, when I started looking at it, and I will also say that I’m very cautious in this book to not tell you exactly how big the asteroid is, because the science on that is super complicated. And I decided that rather than being wrong about it, I was like, “Well, I know that this is how it works, and it is big enough to trigger these conditions. But I don’t know how big that is because I don’t have access to a university supercomputer modeling system to come up with something that’s exactly right.” And even there, it would still be…there’s still opportunity for error.

So, anyway, so that’s what the book is about. It’s basically getting into space in the 1950s. And it’s the push towards the moon. The idea came because I had written a novelette called “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which I wrote for an anthology called Rip-Off! It was an audio anthology. And the premise of Rip-Off! was actually very much like the First Line magazine, which was that the first line is so important. But instead of us all having the same first line, we each got to pick a first line, a famous classic first line, and then write a different story. And I picked the opening line of The Wizard of Oz, and wrote something that was…I wanted a Bradberry homage, something that reminded me of The Martian Chronicles, and that created the story of Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, who were both in “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” older, Elma is in her 60s, Nathaniel is older than she is, he’s in his 70s, and the decisions that they have to make. And the backstory for this piece of fiction was this asteroid strike.

And the more I started thinking about it, the more I was like, “You know, it would be really interesting to know what she was doing when that happened.” And I had written a couple of other short pieces in this universe before I really decided to unpack it into a novel. It’s…I jokingly call it my punch-card-punk universe because they’re much…the computing is a little bit behind where the real timeline went.

I love the fact that the computers are having to check the work of the IBM machine.

Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, that was true.

Yeah, I read that.

Yeah. Yeah, that was really…they were not completely reliable. And we lost…oh was it the, one of the Voyagers? the name’s just gone out of my head…but we lost an early rocket because they had…the computers, who were women, had written the code, had written, you know, this is the plan, and then they had given it to the Air Force and they had keyed it into the punch-cards to load it onto the, you know, onto the rocket, and had transposed something. And so the rocket wound up crashing. So, it’s a really interesting era in computing, in rocketry. And I just got more and more…like, I’ve always been interested in space, but the longer I work in this universe and become versed in the early space program and the contemporary space program, the more interested I am in what we’re doing and how it affects people.

It’s…I find it very interesting because, of course, they’re doing all this, they’re heading to the moon and everything, but it’s ten years earlier than it actually happened, and the technology is that much more primitive, and yet it could have been done then. And it’s very much in that golden age of science fiction era, you know, with Heinlein and rockets being built by teenagers in the backyard, practically.

Yes! Well, and when you start, like, when you really start looking at the early history of spacecraft, of spaceflight…I recommend Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel,, which is a history of pre-NASA spaceflight, the history of spaceflight up until NASA exists, basically. And the early days were actually teenagers and rockets in Germany, there was this whole Rocketry Club. That’s where Wernher von Braun came from, the V-2 is a descendant of that. And it was, you know, it was kids who were like, “I’d love to go to the moon. Can I build this thing?”

Now, you’ve talked about a couple of stories which started with first lines that came from elsewhere. When you’re not starting with the first line…

Yeah.

Where do story ideas tend to come to you from?

It’s random. The thing people always say is the idea is not the hard part. The challenge is turning it into a story. So, I will approach it in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation. Sometimes I will sit down, I’ll just free-write something, and then I will sort of do a diagnostic look at it to see where I’m going and what I need to do to continue this in a satisfying way. Other times, you know, if I’m writing for an anthology or I have an idea that I’m having trouble getting traction on, then I will do something that’s much more mechanical, where I will start breaking this story apart in different permutations to see where the idea could come from.

There’s an organizational theory called the MICE quotient, which holds that every story is basically made up of four components: milieu, which is setting, characters, inquiries, questions that you have, and events. Sorry, milieu, inquiry, character, event. And you can tell pretty much every story, you can reshape and refocus it, depending on which of those you want to be the driver. Most stories have more than one element in them. And so, what I will sometimes do if I’m having trouble kind of getting traction on a story is that I’ll start with what I call the gee-whiz idea, which is, you know, any story prompt you want to throw at me, and then, if I don’t have an immediate hit on it, then I start interrogating it to see, you know, what are the things that could go wrong with the environment, what are the things that, you know, how could I trap someone someplace around this idea? Because a milieu story is about trying to exit, a journey story.

What questions might they have or not be able to answer? Is my character angsting about something or is there something angsty that could be around this, which gives you a character story? Or is there something about this that disrupts the status quo, which is an event? And so, I’ll dig into those. And what I’m looking for is very Marie Kondo. I’m looking for that, you know, that moment like, “Oooh!”, whatever sparks joy. And then that’s the thing that I’ll chase.

And if nothing sparks joy, then there’s not a story there.

Yeah. I mean, there is a story there, but sometimes you have to scratch at it a little bit harder. There’s…you can…I mean, I really think you can tell a story about anything. And you can make it compelling. Like, the first novel, the first thing that I won a Hugo for, is a story called “For Want of a Nail.” And that story, the gee-whiz idea, literally, I mean, seriously, this is what’s…you know, when I came up with this, because this was one that I had to write at a workshop on a deadliney kind of thing, I was, I just, I did the whole mechanical thing to jumpstart me into it. But the gee-whiz idea was trouble plugging in a cable. Proprietary cable. That was, that was it, it was like when you don’t have the right cable…

A situation we’ve all been in.

Yeah. That was the gee-whiz idea. And what I wound up writing, which completely is about not being able to find the right proprietary cable, is a story about a family on a generation ship, and the AI, which they use to record their history from generation to generation, gets dropped. There’s a cable in a housing that’s damaged, so it can no longer store in long-term memory, it can only keep things for a couple of hours and then it’s going to have to start ditching memories, and there’s trouble finding this cable. And the process of finding it and getting it uncovers that the AI has been masking for a couple of different people who have Alzheimer’s, and it’s been covering for them because it can whisper in their ear. And so it’s…the story unpacks into something else. But the story seed is “can’t find the right proprietary cable.” Which is not a particularly compelling story seed. That’s where I’m like, “Ideas are everywhere. It’s just…you just have to scratch up for a little while, sometimes.

It’s something I say when I do school presentations about writing. You know, I can look around a school room and have twenty different story ideas just from what they’ve got stuck on the walls…

Yeah, absolutely.

…or on their desks or whatever So now, going back to Calculating Stars, once you have your story idea, what does your planning process look like for a novel. Are you a detailed outliner, or how does that work for you? And there must’ve been a lot of research involved in this one too, I would think.

It varies. So this one, I had a pretty good…I had a pretty solid outline for this one. And my general approach is that I’ll come up with kind of a what I call a thumbnail sketch, which is left over from my art days, which gives me sort of the basic compositional structure. And then I unpack that into a synopsis, which is like, you know, doing a rough sketch on the page. And then from there, I’ll unpack the synopsis into an outline, which is kind of my armature. And at each of those stages, things get adjusted and moved around as I come to understand the story a little bit more and what I want to get out of it. And I see opportunities, usually opportunities to make things worse for my characters. 

And then…at each phase, I’m also doing research, and it gets more specific the deeper into the process I get. So, with this one, I did fairly broad research on the early space program. I also, when I’m doing something that’s historical, always assume that there were women and people of color there in real life and that they’ve been written out of the narrative. So, one of the things that I actively do is go looking for them. And usually, those stories are significantly more interesting than the ones we’ve always heard, partly because we haven’t heard them. They’re newer stories. Like, when I was working on this was before Hidden Figures came out, so the involvement of women of color in the space industry was something that I became aware of and it was really cool and not something that I had heard of. And some the women…like, you know, Katherine Johnson, who basically wrote…that is how we knew how to get to the moon, because of the programs that she wrote, the math she did, the equations, excuse me. So I look for those and that helps me kind of shape the story.

And then I get more specific in the research. So, like, with these novels, my main character is a pilot. So she needs…so I need to know how rockets are flown. But she’s not an engineer, so I don’t need to know how they’re built. Or rather, I need to know just enough so that when something goes wrong, I can handle it. And this is why I kind of wait until I get an outline, because what I generally find is the stuff that I need to know is related to the things that my character directly interacts with. So, as I get more specific, I get a better idea about which things my character is going to need to interact with, which allows me to then hone my research.

For these particular books, there is so much math and science in there that I don’t have, and the level of understanding that I need to have in order to put sometimes a detail that is like three words long, but if it’s the wrong three words, it’s very apparent to anyone in the industry. Sometimes, it’s a ton of research to do that. So, I hired a science consultant and then I also found a number of people who were willing to…you know, subject-matter experts who are just willing to participate and help me. So I had, you know, I had literal rocket scientists for my science consultants. And then I had a couple of astronauts who were willing to read along and helped me with things. So, when I got, you know, when I would be writing, I would hit a thing, it was a really specific crunchy detail in a scene, but also kind of a grace note, right? It’s not something in spreading the plot, but it’s letting you know that my character is competent. It’s setting the stage. It’s that kind of thing. And so I would play what I call Astronaut Mad Libs. I would write it, and it would be something like, “As she jobbed the job,” or “’Jargon,’” the captain said, as he jargonned the jargon,” and then send it over to the astronauts, and I would say, “Could you just fill in the blanks? Could you just play Mad Libs?” So, technically, parts of these books are written by astronauts.

I was thinking as I was reading it that it’s a lot scarier and harder work actually to write an alternate history, especially that recent an alternate history, than writing a far-future handwavium sort of science, because there are so many opportunities for you to mess up something that people actually know.

Yeah. Yeah. It’s really fascinating. There are a couple of times where I am tempted to just, like, throw some random acronyms on the page, and, you know, just keep going. “That’s a thing.” But what I run into with my own brain is that I know how many people learn their science from fiction and if I have the opportunity to put the right science down on the page, then I will. If…and most of the time, the constraints of getting the science right cause me to have a better story. If I can’t get the science right, then I go vague, or don’t build a plot point around it. Which is why with, as I mentioned before, the asteroid, I know that a water strike, and particularly a shallow water strike, can cause the runaway greenhouse effect. But I didn’t…it was not important to the book to have the size of the asteroid be defined. It’s not a plot point.

We knew what it did. That’s all that matters, really.

That’s right. So again, it’s what she interacts with. So, I did just enough. There I hand-waved the math…let me rephrase it. The math, she’s…there’s a point where she’s trying to figure out how big it is, and she’s…so what she does is, she needs to figure out what it would take to heat up the Chesapeake Bay to the point that it got heated up. So I have them do the math for that, for heating up the Chesapeake Bay. And I had Steven Granade, my science consultant, I’m like, “What is…I found this formula for figuring out what it would take to heat something up a body of water like this, but I don’t do this math. Please help me.” And he did that and walked me through the steps that he had to go through to do the math. And then I took that and used sections of it as my character was kind of working through the problem. So I would have them hum a little bit and just talk out loud, so you just get these pieces of the equation, which…

Yeah, I remember that.

Yeah. So it really makes it look like I know what I’m doing.

It’s all an illusion.

I basically am treating math like a magic system. I established that my character can do magic using numbers. And then later when I say things like, “Elma did the equations,” you believe that she can do those equations.

Without having to specify what those equations were.

That’s correct. Because I was just like, oh, this is…this is a lot.

So, what did your actual writing process look like? I notice you say in your bio that you have a lot of manual typewriters. Do you write on a manual typewriter, or is that just something you’d like to collect?

We like to collect them. I will sometimes do short fiction on manual typewriters. But we just collect them. I predominantly write on my computer, either in Scrivener or…these days, my favorite thing is 4 the Words, 4thewords.com, which is a roleplaying game that…in which the metric for defeating monsters and going on quests is the number of words you write and the time in which you write them.

Oh…

It’s really good.

I should check that out, for sure.

It’s embarrassingly effective. I will write to earn a pair of wings with a dedication that I will not write for a paycheck. So it’s embarrassing how well it works, but it does.

That might be something I could use to motivate me, I admit.

There are quests. You have an avatar. There are little tiny pets that you can get. Yeah, it’s really good.

Hm. Do you work mostly, then, in a home office, or do you like to go out to other places, get away from the house, or what’s your…

All of the above. Since so much of my writing was done, early writing was done, in transit, I’m very comfortable writing kind of wherever I am. Sometimes I will go to a coffee shop because I just need to get out of the house because I’ve been there for so long. Sometimes I write at home in a chair, sometimes I write at a desk. I’m staying with friends right now and I’ve been writing…they have a solarium, so I’ve been sitting out there on a couch and their cat comes and sits with me. So it varies. The only things that are really super consistent are that if there is a conversation, a single conversation near me in which I can distinguish dialogue, I have difficulty concentrating, and I can’t write to music with lyrics. Or, actually, not just lyrics, I cannot write with the human voice. So even if it’s in another language, it will…there’s a part of my brain that’s trying to figure out what they’re saying.

It’s interesting, because I’m exactly the same way. In a coffee shop, I can write if it’s white noise, but otherwise…I have to put on headphones if somebody starts talking close enough to me to follow their conversation. Yeah. And I can’t listen to lyrics, either. I listen to classical or instrumental jazz. And it’s just background noise is just to block out the other noise.

Yeah. The thing that I figured out…so, I just finished writing Relentless Moon, which is Book Three in the Lady Astronaut series, or universe, and while I was in the process of writing it, I had had a flight in which I saw Captain Marvel and the soundtrack for that is so good and empowering and completely stuck in my head, but it’s full of all of these lyrics. So I assembled a Spotify list, which are instrumental versions. It’s an instrumental Captain Marvel playlist and it’s great. And I am now like, “Ah.” This is…because it’s all this really driving music and this is something that I will consider for future projects as well.

Something I didn’t ask you, but this is a good place to ask you because we’re getting to the point now…you’ve got a manuscript. What do you do next in the revision process? Do you have beta…well, you talked about some of the people who read it along the way, like astronauts and so forth.

Yes.

But, do you have more traditional beta readers? And when you were starting out, were there writing groups and  support groups like that that helped you along the way?

Yeah, I started with a writing group very, very early. And I…we recently moved to Nashville and I don’t have one in Nashville, and I miss having a writing group. But what I do with my beta readers is…this is very much influenced by the fact that I come from theater, in that I perform better for an audience. So, the only times I have gotten the stereotypical writer anxiety was the one novel where I decided not to use beta readers until I’d write the thing and then start showing it to people. And I got, I don’t know, ten chapters in and was having “this is a terrible book” reactions. And the thing that I do is, I use…so I’ll write, as I said, in Scrivener, and then I use Google Drive, Google Docs, and I’ll upload a chapter. And I have a list of beta readers who will read it. And I ask them to tell me just four basic things: awesome (so I don’t accidentally fix things); when they get bored, when their attention flags; when they’re confused; and when they don’t believe things. Then, I also tell them, like, stream-of-consciousness thoughts are great, and I enjoy those, but not to give me any kind of line notes at all, because all I’m interested in is whether or not the scene plays.

So, I think of it as inviting someone to a rehearsal. It’s like, it’s not even to a dress rehearsal stage, maybe, but I’ve just, you know, I’ve got the show up on its feet, I want to see if this plays. And then I’ll…just based on what they’re confused about, and that helps me kind of…so, I’m kind of doing a rolling revision as I go. I stay two chapters ahead of them. So, like, if I post Chapter One, that means I have finished writing Chapter Three. Then when I finish…and I should say that I usually talk through the outline with someone, like my writers’ group or with my agent or editor, so I’m pretty structurally solid by the time I start actually writing. And then this kind of rolling revision process means that I wind up with a fairly clean draft, though there’s usually things where I’ll have a retcon…and I just tell the readers, if I have a major retcon that I need to go back and do, I’ll just tell them like, you know, “In a previous scene, the evacuation is going to take place using a repelling line instead of the inflatable slide,” and then I just keep writing as if I’ve already made that change.

Then, when you have got that final draft, you do another revision just on your own?

Yeah.

And what do you look for in that pass?

I look for the same things that I ask my readers to look for. So, a lot of times I think a thing that writers will forget is that they have been thoroughly trained as readers for their entire life and that we can still have an emotional response to something, even if we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a piece of media that you’ve seen that you love, that, you know, you can probably recite lines from and you’ve seen multiple times. You know, like The Princess Bride. “Anybody got a peanut?” So, the fact that you know where something is going doesn’t stop you from having these emotional responses and  this cathartic satisfaction.

So, with my fiction, if I am not having reader responses, like if I find myself getting bored with something, it’s probably boring. It probably means that it’s not going to stand up to a reread. And, you know, as a writer, if people want to reread my stuff, that’s real good. So, I try to do a read through in which I am thinking about my own emotional responses to things. Usually when I finish it there’s some big-picture stuff that I know I need to do and I’ll do that. But then, like, when I have something, that’s pretty clean, I’ll do a reread and look for the problems. Look for the things where I get a little bored. You know, like, “Look, you just started skimming there. Maybe you should do something with that.” The number of times that I’m reading something that I’ve written, I’m like, “What does that even mean?” So, I’ll fix everything that I can identify. And these days, unless I have done a really major structural change, after that, I will send it off to my agent or editor. Before I was agented and had books that were for sale, or books that had been sold, I would run it through a different set of beta readers and see how it played for them, to see whether or not I had accidentally introduced a problem. If I’ve done a really big structural change, I will often run it through beta readers before turning it in, through another set of iterators, but not always. It depends.

And what does your agent and/or editor, what sorts of things do they most often flag for you to take another look at? If anything?

It depends on the book. A lot of times it’s a pacing issue. Sometimes they’ll flag that there’s a character opportunity that I missed, motivation is not clear, and those are the things where it’s most likely to have been in my head and to not hit the page. So, it’s usually something to do with the characters, in either the main character’s or a secondary character’s internal life. And those are usually pretty easy adjustments to make. But that’s for me the things that I’m usually getting flagged with. Sometimes it’s something else that’s more…fundamental, a large change. But since I have them involved from the outline phase, it’s usually pretty sound by the time we get in there.

Have you had the same editor for multiple books or have you worked with different editors?

So, the first…until Relentless Moon, it has all been Liz Gorinsky for the novels, and now Relentless Moon is Beth Meacham. I’m still with Tor, but Liz left and now has her own company, Erewhon, and is doing quite well. But it was an interesting process. switching editors. I’ve been edited, of course, by a lot of different short-fiction editors, but figuring out what the rhythms were and our communication style and things like that, it’s an interesting shift. And they flag different things. Each good, but it’s an interesting, interesting change.

My main publisher is DAW, I’m on my tenth novel with him and of course, that’s Sheila Gilbert, so I’m very, very familiar with Sheila’s style of editing. So, whenever I work with anybody else, it’s like, “Well, that’s different.”

Yeah. Right. Yeah.

’Cause it is kind of a…it’s not exactly a marriage, but it’s some sort of long-term relationship, anyway.

Yeah. Yeah, it really is. I mean it’s…in a lot of ways you’re business partners, because you’re building a product together. It sounds really crass, but it is a thing that is happening. Or, you know, theater, it’s…you’re putting on a show together now.

Now, you are…I would suspect…pleased with your response that the book has gotten.

Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s been very nice. I mean, the…I’ll tell you that the awards are…I mean, it’s been amazing. And I…like, the whole hitting all three was…staggering, I would say. But the thing that has been really…I’m not sure…this is a…it’s a tricky thing to talk about because it was an unexpected thing…the discussions of anxiety and mental illness in the book. There are a lot of people for whom that hits very hard and that deal with anxiety and feel like they have never seen themselves on the page before. And so, the emails, the fan mail that I get with these books, is of a different sort than I’ve gotten with the other things I’ve written. And it is really humbling. Like, I am…again, you know, again, it’s a theater thing, and it’s a fiction thing, too, but there’s a thing that I create. And then there’s the thing that the audience sees. And a puppet…you know,  a puppet is an inanimate object, right? My job is to pick it up and move it. But the thing we say in puppet theater is that the difference between playing with dolls and putting on a puppet show is the audience. Because the audience has to invest part of their belief in the character in order for it to come alive. It doesn’t matter how skilled I am at manipulating it. If there’s not someone there to watch it and invest part of themselves, it’s still just a figure. And so, the puppet exists in this liminal space between the performer and the audience. And I feel like books are very much the same way. Like, I wrote a book that satisfied me and that I intended to have an emotional impact on my readers. But I did not set out to write a book that was going to speak directly to people with anxiety. Like, that was…the goal was to tell a story about getting to the moon. That was the goal. And I wrote a character that I loved and I connected with, but this thing that has happened, that exists in this liminal space between my book and the reader, is something that the reader is responsible for. Like, each reader who picks it up is bringing part of themselves to it. And so, it’s this humbling thing where I am involved in this act of discovery for these readers. And what I’m doing is that I am…I’ve given them a tool, but the discovery is generated by them.

Yeah, I often like to say that writing is, we think of it as a solo thing that we do on our own, but it is in fact a completely collaborative art form, because, it does not exist until it exists in the head of somebody who reads it. And every reader is going to craft, really, a different story out of the story that you created. It’s actually a different story for every individual that reads it in some way or other.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, certainly, I also get the people who have clearly never realized that there are people in their lives who have anxiety. “Why is Elma so whiny? She can fly a plane, but she can’t talk in front of a group of people. I don’t believe that.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyone who has anxiety, they’re the best people to have with you in a crisis, because they’re like, what, stress hormones? That’s Tuesday.”

And I would think that you’ve had some good response…I haven’t…okay, I mentioned to you before we started the show that my wife is an engineer and has long been involved in the efforts to get more women involved in engineering. And there’s an effort in Canada right now called 30 by 30, which is to try to increase the percentage of women in the profession to thirty percent by 2030. And her mother was a doctor who graduated from medical school in 1947 when there were not a lot of other women in her class with her at the University of Toronto. So I would think that there would be a segment of the population whom that part really speaks to as well.

Yeah, yeah, that’s really true. A lot of people in STEM, women in particular, contact me to tell me that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, my story was Elma’s.” But what’s horrifying, is, it’s really easy to read the book and go, “But that was the 1950s.” And the number of women who have had that experience in the 21st century, of being the only woman in their math class…the fact that there’s a campaign to get thirty percent women, that’s still not a lot.

And I will say, I think at the University of Toronto, where my daughter, she’s not in engineering, but she just started this year, and I was there for their…when the engineers were having their big thing that they do the first day, there are all these people in yellow shirts and hard hats running around. And I was watching them go by. And it was, it looked pretty much 50/50. And I think they’re pretty darn close at the University of Toronto and the engineering program right now. So…

So, I’m going to challenge you on that, when you say that it looks 50/50, to find out. Because there is a thing that happens, and this is real, this is like well-documented, that when there are thirty percent women in a room, or on a bookshelf, that it is perceived as being predominantly women, even though it’s not.

Well, in this case, I asked my wife and she believes that it is close…closer than 30 percent in the high 40s maybe. So, you know, pretty close. OK. I confess I haven’t looked at up myself, but I think the University of Toronto at least is certainly working hard…

Good.

…to make that happen. So I also wanted to touch, before I get to my big philosophical question here—we’re just about out of time, but I want to get those in…but I did just want to ask you about the audiobook narration. That’s another form of theater.

Yes.

And I’ve…I do some of that myself. I’m currently narrating my own books, but I’ve done a couple of other people’s, too. How did that come about?

I like to say it’s like puppetry, but without the pain. You know, I have this long career doing character voices and talking to myself because usually there’s two performers and you have to do the entire cast, so often you are in dialogue with yourself. So, I had that skill set and my minor in college was theater and speech, specifically doing radio performance. So, honestly, I like, I auditioned and audiobooks are just like trying to do any other form of, you know, any form of writing, where there’s submission guidelines and you go and you read the submission guidelines and then you follow those instructions and you turn in a tape. And then sometimes they’ll have you do what is essentially a callback, where they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re thinking about you for this audiobook. Here’s a page. Please read that page to us.” And then you see what happens. I got lucky. I did a couple of different things, but then started doing the Seanan Maguire series. I was just in the booth this morning to record the fixes on book thirteen in the series. So it’s nice to have a little bit of job security there. She keeps writing these.

But I have to ask, because, having done it…it’s an enormously time-consuming thing, recording books. Does that…how do you balance out writing your own stuff and recording the other stuff. You just have time for it? Because I find it’s a huge…you know, it just takes so much time.

Well, I don’t do self-producing. So I have an engineer, which means that I only have to do the recording part.

And true, I do my own engineering.

Yeah. And that’s the part that I’m just like, no. if I had to do that, yeah, then the balancing of those two things would be, I think, well-nigh impossible. But balancing just narrating and writing is not bad. Usually it’s, you know, six to eight hours a day of the narration, depending on the book and who I’m recording for. And then I’ll get in an hour or so of writing before or after, depending again on the book and where I am. Sometimes, I’m doing it…like, editing and narration. I will often do my edits on my lunch break or something. So it’s…I don’t find it any different than balancing writing with any other day job. And I don’t do it often. Like…I mean, I’ve done seventy-some books, but I’m not recording every day.

I could be if I did, if I were willing to do, home records or self-records. But I…most of my career has been trying to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do. And it’s not something I’m interested in doing. So I don’t, even though that means I have less audiobook work. And then there’s also books that I don’t want to record. There was a series that I was recording for a company and the books were very rapey and I recorded the second one and said, “I can’t, I can’t record these. I’m so sorry. I know that you don’t want to change narrators mid-series, but I just, I don’t want to be involved with these books.” I was already using a pseudonym for them and…which, like, they don’t…I don’t do a lot of. But I’m like, I don’t need to do these books and I don’t want to. So I don’t. Which makes it significantly easier to balance.

Yeah. Well, it’s you, when you’re reading something out loud it’s…yeah, if you’re not comfortable with the narrative, it would be very difficult, I would think, to…

I mean…yeah, I can do it. Like, I can turn in a good performance. It’s compelling and all of that. But I’m just like, “But I don’t want to participate in that.”

I’m just gonna back up for a minute. I was listening, but I was also checking the enrollment at the University of Toronto, and they’re at…I did overestimate. They are apparently at about thirty-five percent women at this point.

Yep. Thank you for checking. And that was what I, sorry, that was what I guessed.

I had heard a higher number than that, but clearly that was incorrect. So, just to finish up here, with the sort of the big philosophical question, and you sort of touched on this already, with the sort of reaction and, you know, talking about the collaboration with readers. But, the first question is, “Why do you do this? Why do you tell stories?”, and then the second question is, “And what do you hope to accomplish by telling stories?” So, why do you write, and specifically, why do you write science fiction? Why do you write this crazy stuff?

So I write, and I write, I guess, science fiction, because…for the same reasons that I do puppetry. It is the theater of the possible. It allows me to take the natural world, tip it on its side, and look at the interconnective tissue, which helps me understand the real world more. The reason I write instead of just doing daydreams is so that I can share those things with other people. It’s also, I think…I mean, I am a storyteller and it’s something that gives me satisfaction. I like the give and take. I like that conversation with the reader. So, really, I guess, ultimately, I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. As I said, I am working to turn down gigs I don’t want to do, so ultimately and selfishly, I write because I enjoy it.

But the goal with each book is to provoke an emotional response in the reader and usually to have them share the same emotional journey that I have had when I’ve been thinking about a character. But each book is different. Each short story is different. Like, the specifics of what that emotional response is vary. With the Lady Astronaut books, a lot of what I am thinking about kind of consciously are ways in which to demonstrate a different path. Because we do learn so much from fiction. We use it as a means of cathartic experimentation, trying on different selves. And…as a reader, I mean, not as a writer. We do that as writers, too, but as readers, that’s what…we’re trying on these different lives and these thought experiments. And sometimes the thing we want to try on is just escaping the stuff that’s going on around us. Sometimes it is purely just for fun, which I think is also a valuable and important thing. But it is…each book we pick up, we pick up for a reason, to have this journey of some sort. And so I am, as a writer, wanting to create the experience that I have as a reader.

Something that…I always say that the reason I write is because I want to give to other people the experience I had as a reader.

Yeah.

You know, and create something that people will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed the stuff that I’ve read.

Yeah.

I think that’s a common thread. And what are you working on now?

I am doing the final edits for Relentless Moon. It was actually due day before yesterday, but I’m…one of my astronauts got back to me with notes at 10:30 the night before it was due, which is…fortunately, my editor was like, “Wait, you got astronaut notes? You get some extra days.” So I am actually rewriting a scene based on those notes right now. That is literally what I was doing right before this interview and what I’m going to do immediately when we’re done. And then, once I turn that in, I get to start working on a book that is not in the Lady Astronaut universe that I’m very excited about. It’s the next book that’s gonna come out from Tor. So, Relentless Moon comes out in 2020. The book after that is called The Spare Man, and it is a locked-room murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship. And it’s basically The Thin Man in space. It’s, you know, retired detective and a socialite and sparkling witty banter, but on a cruise ship going from the moon to Mars.

That sounds like fun.

It’s…I have written the first three chapters of it and the outline. I’m so excited to be writing this book. I cannot tell you. It is frolicking.

And where can people find you online?

The easiest way is to go to my Web site, maryrobinettekowal.com. And you can check out the Web site, but actually, signing up for my newsletter is probably the best thing, because I’ll tell you when I’m teaching classes, when I’m going to be traveling, and I will sometimes put out calls for beta readers and invite people to read my stuff while I’m working on it.

And are you active on Twitter?

Yes. @MaryRobinette, and on Instagram @MaryRobinetteKowal. Generally speaking, if you type in my name, Mary Robinette, I will pop up.

Yes, I think you’re the only one I’ve ever heard of.

So, funny thing, I actually met another Mary Robinette. But it was her last name. And that was very funny. But it’s…and Joe Biden’s middle name is also Robinette. But there’s not a lot of us.

I did not know that about Joe Biden, so that says…you learn something new every day. I knew it was Joe R. Biden, but I know that was his middle name.

Yeah, my double take on Inauguration Day was pretty epic.

Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me.

I enjoyed it. Hope you did, too.

I did.

Episode 40: Rebecca Roanhorse

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

Website
www.rebeccaroanhorse.com

Twitter
@RoanhorseBex

Facebook
@roanhorsebex

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Rebecca.

Well, thank you for having me.

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

Wow. Small world.

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

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

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

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

All of them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good advice!

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Okay. So how did the idea come about?

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

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

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

Right. Right. Yeah. This is rural fantasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’ve been doing it a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

She’s not warm and fuzzy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Absolutely.

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

That’d be great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has a title.

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

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

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

I hope so.

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

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

And where can people find you online?

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

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

Thank you. Yeah, I absolutely did.

Bye for now.

Episode 34: John Kessel

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

Website
johnjosephkessel.wixsite.com/kessel-website

Facebook
www.facebook.com/john.kessel3

John Kessel’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

John Kessel

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, John.

Thank you. Glad to be here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Right. Me too, really. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Wow, good for you.

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

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

Oh, I remember those.

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remember the name.

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

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

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

What drew you out of astrophysics to add the English?

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

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

Were those science fiction and fantasy stories?

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

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

Right.

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

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

Right.

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

Do you think that’s changing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And been there ever since.

And been there ever since, yeah. Yeah.

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

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

It starts to make you a little paranoid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I have a daughter who’s eighteen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. Right.

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

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

Empire of Silence. That’s the first book.

That’s it. Empire of Silence.

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

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

For yourself, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, there’s that, too.

Yeah.

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

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

I miss that moon.

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

And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

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

Take care.