An hour-long conversation with Lavie Tidhar, World Fantasy Award, Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, Campbell Award, and Neukom Prize-winning author, speaker, and book columnist for the Washington Post, about his creative process, with a focus on his new novel The Escapement (Tachyon Publications).
Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Osama (2011), Seiun-nominated The Violent Century (2013), the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), and the Campbell Award and Neukom Prize-winning Central Station (2016), and Locus and Campbell award-nominatedUnholy Land (2018), in addition to many other works and several other awards. His latest novel is The Escapement (Tachyon Publications). Other recent novels includeBy Force Alone (2020) and debut children’s novel Candy (2018 UK; as The Candy Mafia 2020 US). He is also the author of the comics mini-series Adler..
Lavie works across genres, combining detective and thriller modes with poetry, science fiction, and historical and autobiographical material. His work has been compared to that of Philip K. Dick by the Guardian and the Financial Times, and to Kurt Vonnegut’s by Locus.
Lavie’s media appearances have included Channel 4 News, BBC Radio London and others. His speaking engagements have included a wide range of events, including for the Ministry of Defence, Cambridge University, English PEN, the Singapore Writers Festival and various Guest of Honour appearances in Japan, Poland, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, China and elsewhere. Occasional commissions include work for Conde Nast, Braingle/Puzzle Tales, I Speak Machine/Penguin Random House, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum Berlin and New Scientist.
Well, thank you very much. It’s always interesting to hear your life done in in short form. And even when I write it myself, I’m always a little behind the times.
I always like to see if I can find a connection. We have not met in person, but back when you had Jane Yolen books, you did reject me once. So, there’s that. Actually, I was a very nice rejection because you said that there was nothing wrong with the book—it was a fantasy called The Dark Unicorn—and that a larger house might very well be able to take it on, it just didn’t suit your house, which, you know, was a lot better than just getting the form rejection backroad. So, I appreciated it at the time. And the book did eventually find a not very good home, but I’m going to be revising it and bringing out it out again with my own little publishing company before too long. And it did get nominated for an award so well that that was it was very nice to get that sort of personal response from you back then.
I don’t want to make you nervous or anything, but I still get rejections. And I love my rejections because, one, they mean somebody read it, then I can move on. But the other thing is the rejections recently say things like this is lyrical, lovely writing. I love the characters. It’s not for us.
Well, I’ve had my share of rejections now after all the years I’ve been writing. And you have 400 books. I only have 60 or so, so I’m well behind you. But still. So ,we’re going to start with, what I usually say is, taking you back into the mists of time just to find out about your, you know, you’re growing up and how you got interested in and writing. Most of us started as readers and then became writers. And how did that all play out for you? So, tell me about yourself, Jane.
Well, there’s a lot to tell because I’m 82 years old. We might be on this for seventy-two hours. I grew up in a family, a Jewish family in New York, and there were books everywhere. My parents made no distinction between what books we could and we couldn’t read. If we were interested in it and we could get through it, we could read it, which meant that I was reading stuff so far over my head when I was four years old. But I loved the sound of the language and I think that stayed with me all of my life.
My father was a journalist who had become, by the time I came along, had become a head of the Overseas Press Club. But he then left journalism itself and became first, a promotion person and then became a vice president at Hill and Knowlton, which was public relations. And he was the one who was involved with getting people into newspapers, magazines, and books. So, there were always books there. And he actually wrote, I am going to use quotes around the term “wrote,” because he got other people to write for him, six or seven books under his name. He never wrote any of them. I wrote the first one that was actually my first book, but I don’t count it because my name isn’t on it. And my brother became a journalist. My mother wrote short stories, but only sold one in her life. But she also made and sold crossword puzzles and double acrostics and all their friends were known and very well-known writers. They ranged from the very known ones like Hemingway and James Thurber to people you and I still don’t know today. But it meant that as I was growing up, I thought that all grown-ups were writers, I knew they were teachers, like, librarians, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, the cop on the beat. I mean, I lived in New York City, I saw all of this. I thought that was their day job. And at night, they all went home to write. So in my little pea brain at that moment came the idea that whatever I did during the day, I would be a writer because I’d go home at night and write and that . . . it’s sometimes metaphor, but it’s absolutely true.
It’s interesting because I talk to so many writers who say, you know, when I was growing up, I never knew a writer. I didn’t know people could be writers. And then they found out they could be a writer. And you’re just quite the opposite.
Absolutely. And if you ask that, if you talk to my brother who lives in Brazil, who is a newspaper man for all of his life, he’d say pretty much the same thing.
So when did you . . . I assume you started writing as a child?
I wrote as a child. I mean, I, you know, I was the writer in my elementary school, although I wrote class plays that we all played in, I wrote poems, I wrote little lyrics to songs. And the same thing happened once I got into high school. I was the one who was known as the writer. And in college it was the same. I wrote a lot of songs, a lot of short stories, but mostly poetry.
Were there books that particularly influenced you during those early years?
Well, I was a huge King Arthur fan, so I read everything anybody ever wrote about King Arthur. So, yes, along the way I’ve written three or four King Arthur books myself, but I love folk and fairy tales. And Hans Christian Andersen. Oscar Wilde absolutely fascinated me. And it was poetry that stuck with me all through my life, I’m still writing poetry to this to this day.
What was it that drew you to poetry?
I think because I was very musical to begin with, so I started with lyrics. And, you know, we’re talking George Gershwin here, right? But then as I grew up, people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were writing the kind of music I like, but the kind of also lyrics that I like that were really poems set to music. That kind of, you know, calcified for me.
It’s interesting. I have committed poetry, I don’t know if it’s good poetry or not, but they are very different writing disciplines, writing, writing prose and in poetry. Do you find that writing the poetry informs your prose, the way that you write prose?
I write very lyrical prose, but I tell you, I know when a picture book or a novel or short story of mine is good, I don’t know for the most part if a poem is good or good enough, I’m always surprised when people take my poems for journals, magazines, anthologies. half the time. It’s not the poems I would have taken. I’ll them say I send them seven, they take two or three. Those are not the three I would have taken, so I’m not sure why. I don’t know which one of my poems are the best, when I can tell right away if a book works or a story works.
Once you were . . . well, your first book was published when you were about . . . the first official one was published when you were 22. Is that right?
So, you were still in university or just out of university?
I was out three years, I graduated in 1960, but I had poetry published all the way through and newspaper stuff and magazine articles published. But my first book, I sold it on my twenty-second birthday. After I sold it, I ran two blocks to the overseas press club where my father was holding court at lunchtime and I said, “Daddy, Daddy, I sold my first book.” And he looked at me and then he looked at all the guys, there weren’t any women, I think, in the Press Club at that time, and he said, “Fellows, drinks are on the house. And a coke for my little girl!”
You then started doing a lot of editorial work in the ’60s, did you not?
Well, I first worked for Knox Berger before he became an agent. He was an editor at one of the paperback reprint publishers and I worked for him for about a year, and then when I sold my first book, and it was a children’s book, I thought maybe I’d better learn more about children’s books. So, I did two things. I took a course in writing for children at the New School, but at the same time I went to a head-hunter and said, “I don’t care who it is, but I want you to find me a job in children’s book publishing in New York City,” because I was living in New York City at that point, and they found me a job with a packager who did children’s books, which was interesting, because then I got to write a lot of stuff within the books that they were doing. My name never got on them, but I got to do that. So, there were a couple of problems in crossword puzzles and fiddly bits in books that I mean, they’re long gone. And this was 1961 to ’62 that I wrote that, that we’ll never know, except me and probably not even me anymore now, that I had done.
It’s a bit like the backup singers on some recordings, like I think of The Jersey Boys where they’re doing backup vocals for four other singers that nobody remembers anymore. But meanwhile, it’s the Four Seasons singing the backup songs back there.
So that’s how we got started. And then one of my fellow editors at the packager was an older woman and she was a friend of mine. And we had to show the packager anything we wrote first because they had first dibs on it. But if the editor rejected it, it was OK and we could take it elsewhere. And her name was Frances Kane. We all called her queen. And she said to me one time, I showed her a manuscript called The Witch Who Wasn’t, and she said, “I’m going to tell you a secret.” She said, “I like this very much, but I don’t want to publish it here. I’m about to take a job as head of MacMillan’s Children’s Publishing. Will you bring it to me there?” I said, “You got it.” Almost maybe my second or third book that was published. And Kate and I remained friends until her death, which was rather too, too soon. But she was very important in my early writing days.
You mentioned that you had taken a course in writing children’s literature at The New School, and I always ask authors who have taken formal writing courses how helpful they were to their career, because I get a variety of answers to that question.
Well, one of the picture books that I tried there, I thought, “Oh, well, there you go.” Things are so different now that the kind of book that I learned about and that I wrote then I would not be able to write and sell now, but I learned to be aware of how these things change. And that’s important. I think one of the reasons I’ve been so successful for so many years, whereas other people have sort of dropped by the wayside, who had started about the same time as I did, is that I’m very flexible and I’m able to do any number of things. And if the picture book world changes, I change with it. If the novel world changes, I change with it. If I can’t get a big publisher to publish something, I get a wonderful small publisher like Tachyon to publish a book of mine. So, I’m infinitely flexible and I love meeting new editors and talking ideas with them, because having been an editor, I was an editor for fifteen years, having been an editor, I know how to talk to editors. I know they’re the friends, not the enemies. Nobody buys a book to make it bad.
Yeah, there are authors, especially new authors, who are kind of scared of editors and think somehow they’re going to take their deathless prose and ruin it somehow, and that’s just not the experience you have with a professional editor. They want a good book, too. So, your experience as an editor. You’re writing and editing at the same time, how do those two things work together? Do you find that by looking at other people’s work, it makes your own work stronger? You’re able to see how other people are dealing with, you know, the same . . . we all encounter the same problems in our writing that we have to solve. You know, characterization and all that stuff. Did you find that being an editor helped you as a writer?
That’s exactly it. But that’s the second thing I learned. The first thing I learned, looking at people’s writing was, “Gee, I’m a good writer,” because a lot of bad stuff comes over the desk. Anyone who is an editor will tell you that. Eighty-five to ninety percent of the stuff that they see is so amateurish, there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s the other ten to fifteen percent that there are possibilities. And more than half of those are not the kind of book that they’re looking for. When I was an editor and editing fantasy and science fiction for middle grade and young adults, I would get coming over my desk nonfiction books, cookbooks, mystery novels, picture books, none of which was of interest to me. But I still had to send a letter back with it. So, the first thing that I say to anyone who’s a writer is look at where you’re sending it, make sure it’s the sort of thing they’re looking for. If you don’t know what they’re looking for, find out. You can ask other authors. You can join groups like the Science Fiction Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and find out information. The more you have information about what a particular editor or a particular publisher is looking for, the easier you’re going to make your life.
I suspect the problem of inappropriate material flooding editors’ offices is even worse now with email being a way to submit. It’s just become much easier for those places that take email submissions. The volume must be enormous.
It’s not that, it’s to say we’re open to anyone. You should see who anyone is. They are people who have never finished something, they’ve started it but never finished it. They’ve written a book that’s just like their favorite book, or they’ve taken characters from their favorite book and used them, which is a no-no, unless the author is long dead or has given them permission. So, there are those sorts of things that you get over and over and over again
You’ve won a lot of awards. How did that all ramp up? I mean, you start out like anybody else. You’re selling a few books and then you’ve built and built. So, were you really gratified by the response to your writing over the years?
Well, of course, I’m gratified. Some of the awards that I’ve won, I go to some of the awards that I that I’ve won, I go, “Oh, my God, I’m so honored.” Some of them I’ve said, “I think they missed the mark on this one.” And some of them I say, “Thank you,” and put the thing up in the attic, because honestly, there are more awards out there than there are writers. And they happen year after year after year after year. The ones that I am especially proud of, those are ones that I keep where people can see them. But at this point, I must have, you know, like two or three hundred awards, certificates, that sort of thing. And occasionally they spell my name wrong on it. Occasionally it’s for a book that I think of my work is minor, but the ones that are really special to me, those are the ones that I take out and look at now.
Which one set fire to your coat?
Well, it was this Skylark Award given by the Boston Science Fiction Convention. Not for any particular work, it’s for somebody who has been doing good work and within the community, the science fiction community. And I always volunteered for things at Boskone, which is the science fiction convention. So ,they gave that to me and I took it home, as I did with any award I would get or any certificate. It would sit on my kitchen table for about a week, and then it would sort of slowly move upstairs to the attic. Now, the attic is not just an attic, it is where I store awards, where I have all my extra copies of foreign editions, where I have all my files. So, it’s a library. My entire folklore library is up there, too. So, it’s a little bit like a library/boasting place. But this award, the Skylark award, was sitting there . . . it had been a rather rainy, dark New England winter. And it was sitting in front of the kitchen window, which is a large, a huge, large window. And it was a wooden plinth with a . . . not a microscope, what is it called?
Right, a magnifying glass up top, because it was named after the Lensman series, right? And my husband and I were coming down the stairs to go actually to Smith College where I was winning a Smith Medal, I was a Smith graduate, and I said, “I smell something funny.” We ran into the to the kitchen and my good coat was smoking because it was a beautiful blue-sky day with the sun coming in from the east, pouring in through the windows. If we had gone later, the house might have gone up. So, I called up my friend Bruce Coville, who had been the one to hand me the award, and I told him what happened. And I said, “Bruce, I’m going to have to put this award where the sun don’t shine.” On the other end—Bruce is a huge laugher—dead silence. And I did what I did to say that and I hung up. So, he told the committee what had happened. The committee said that when they gave the next one would I come and say that as a warning. And so that’s become something that every year at Boskone, when they’re giving out the award, I have to run up and say, “Stop, stop, stop! Before you take that award, I need to give you this warning.” And so it’s, you know, it’s fandom at its best.
The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy world, the Aurora Award, the current one is just a plexiglass Aurora, but the original one was this piece made out of a laser-cut metal that you could disassemble and put into your suitcase if you were flying after winning one of them. And apparently the trick with that one was, because of all these sharp edges, you had to . . . people discovered that if they didn’t wrap it very carefully in their suitcase, it shredded their clothes. I have one, but I didn’t have that problem.
And I love that story. I never heard that one.
The other thing about it is, it’s very pointy metal in a base. And when I won mine, it was in Montreal, and I discovered that if you pointed it forward people decided to give you more room on the elevator because nobody wanted to get close to it.
All the fandom.
Yeah. So, we’re going to talk about your your upcoming book, Arch of Bone, and we’re going to use that as an example of your general overall writing process, so you can talk about any books you want during this process. But then, you’ve written also for adults and middle grade and young adults. And I want to get your thoughts on the differences among those three. But maybe, first of all, just tell us a little bit about Arch of Bone.
Well, there are stories that are in your heart, and wherever they started, they were in your heart and you want to tell them if you’re a writer. And this was one I carried for a long time. It takes place in 1964 in Nantucket. And it’s really tagging onto the end of one of my all-ime favorite novels, which is Moby Dick. And I was . . . I am in New York City, a Jewish kid loving Moby Dick from the first time I read it, and I would read it as I grew up every ten years because it’s a big book, it takes a long time to read. And any time I was talking to an editor, it was going to be historical, but it was going to have fantastical elements in it. Any time I talked to an editor, they looked at me shellshocked, like, “That doesn’t sound like something I want to do.” So I put it aside and I put it aside and I put it aside for years. And then I started publishing with Tachyon and Tachyon said, “We’re starting a middle-grade young-adult line now and we’d love it if you would have something for us to see.” And I talked to them about this book because it’s a book that starts out a new way. I knew how it was starting out and I knew where it was going.
But there was a major problem. And I’ll tell you that in a minute. I knew it started out with a young boy, a thirteen, fourteen-year-old boy whose mother has been sick with whatever for the whole winter. His father is on a whaling ship, so he’s away. So, the boy is kind of man of the house. His father’s been gone for about a year or so. And it’s early spring. There’s a knock on the door and he opens the door and there’s this man he’s never seen before. And, you know, normally you would know your neighbors in Nantucket. And he says, “Who were you?” And the man says, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s Ishmael coming to tell Starbuck’s wife and son that Starbuck, who was the first mate in Moby Dick, that everybody died except for himself. And so, that’s how I knew it was going to start, and I also knew that the boy being upset about the man staying at their house and thinking that his mother has gone through widowhood, you know, in the day, and now she’s looking at a new man, which is not true. He takes off on his own little cat boat with his dog and into the teeth of a nor’easter. And that’s all I knew.
A great beginning!
He was going to break up on an island. So, it’s going to be Moby Dick meets Robinson Crusoe with some miraculous dreams or oracular dreams. That’s all I knew. But the thing that stopped me over and over again just going ahead and writing it and then trying to peddle it was that you needed a good knowledge of sailing. I had not a good knowledge of . . . I mean, I lived in Massachusetts, but I lived in western Massachusetts. I could go and I could have somebody sail me around to some of the places, but I didn’t have the deep knowledge of it. Fast forward almost sixty years, and I’m working with Tachyon and they ask for it and I’m thinking about it and thinking, you know, I’m in my 80s. If I don’t write this book, it’s never going to get written. But I still am worried about this. And my husband had died 14 years earlier, so I’ve been a widow all that time. And I re-meet a guy that I had dated in college, and we fell in love, we’re married. We’re living together. We have, you know, children and grandchildren. He is a sailor, had his own boat. He would sail, he and his wife, he and his kids, they would sail on this boat all around the Nantucket area because he lives in Mystic, Connecticut. And I said, “Would you read this book?” Well, he’d been a teacher all his life, and one of his favorite books he loved to teach was, guess what, Moby Dick. It was, you know, the right time. And he read it, he showed me charts of the waters, he told me when I had a boat thing wrong, you know, “They don’t say that, they call it this.” He read it very thoroughly for me. And I couldn’t have done it, or I wouldn’t have done it, without him. So, sometimes a book has to sit, sometimes a book has to mature, and sometimes the author has to mature, and sometimes luck has to come into it.
So what did you . . . the idea obviously had been floating around for a very long time, but when you were finally able to do something with it, once you settled down to write, and your other books as well, what does your sort of planning outlining process look like? And I presume it might be different for an adult book, a YA book, and certainly for a picture book. But what does that look like for you?
You think I outlined, do you?
Oh, well, that’s the question, really.
When I first started writing novels, I did. And then I discovered that they boxed me in. Because no matter what I put on the page as where I was going, as I got into the book, things happened that I wasn’t expecting and weren’t on my outline. I’m more like what they call a pantser, flying by the seat of my pants, I like to think of it as flying into the mist. I know where the book is going. I have to get to know who the characters are. And sometimes the characters say to you, “I’m not going there.”
More like sailing into the mist on this book, I guess, instead of flying.
Exactly. I didn’t know that that he was going to have to rebuild a boat. I didn’t know he was going to have these oracular dreams. Once Tachyon said they wanted it, I knew that I had to have a fantasy element that had never been in it to begin with. So, what did I do? He finds a bone, which is a whalebone jaw, and when he leans against it, he has dreams. The first dream is of a whale telling him about how the whales have been dying and why and how things are changing. And then, the next three dreams are about the boat that his father died on. So, I read Moby Dick, annotated it, and talked to Peter about it over and over again. Some people really need to fill out, you know, everything about their world and everything about where they’re going and know everything bit by bit. That’s not how I work. Now, having said that, I just finished another middle-grade fantasy novel called Sea Dragon of Fife. And it’s part of, I think, a series that’s going to be called—we’re still fiddling with this—The Royal and Ancient Monster Hunters, so it’s R&A Monster Hunters. And in that, because I first outlined it years ago when I still thought I could outline, it turns out that stuff that I put in later changed the ending, made the ending more poignant, because as I was going along and writing it, I realized . . .these are some kids who are out there as monster hunters, they’re school kids. And the head of the group is the schoolmaster. And we’re talking 1900s, Scotland. And they’re in danger, but they’re out there to kill the Sea Dragon. The Sea Dragon’s female. They’ve already killed one of her sons, may have killed the second one, and then they finally come upon her and everybody thinks that’s fine and I’m going, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, they’re killing a mom. You have to say something about this,” and that changed the dynamics when I have the main character, who’s telling the story, saying that she feels bad about this, so she has some real criticism. Meanwhile, you know, it’s a dragon that’s tried to eat two boys and may have killed other people. So, it’s a dragon, doing what a dragon does to feed its family. So that was not in the original outline and it changed things very much.
So, what does your actual writing process itself look like, then? You’re not referring to your outline all the time and then writing things. Do you—I always ask this—do you write longhand under a tree with parchment and a quill pen or do you work set hours during the day? Do you work in your home? Do you go out? Well, not now, but have you sometimes gone out to other places to write? Or how does that work for you?
I have a fairly simple thing. I get up in the morning, I go into my writing room, still in my jammies, and start to write, and write for about an hour. It may just be, at the beginning, just looking at my email, playing a little bit of Boggle, writing a new poem, because I send out a poem a day to subscribers. And then I go downstairs, have something to eat, go back upstairs and get dressed for work as if I were going out to an office. The office is right there in my house. And then it’s butt on chairtime that I teach my students all about. Butt in chair. If you’re not there working and you’re looking for an idea and the muse comes by, she’ll give it to you. But if you’re not in your chair, she’s heading out, you know, out west to give it to someone else. And I literally, I probably work between four and eight hours a day. Some of that is just reading, some of that is writing, some of that is revising, some of that is sending stuff out. But I’m at my desk. You don’t write four hundred books if you don’t sit at your desk, and it’s been an adventure.
I mean, it’s not that I don’t go out and do things. I have a house in Scotland that I go to and I’ll write there as well. Peter and I are right now sitting in his house in Mystic, Connecticut. I was writing this morning and I do other things and I’m a very personable kind of person. I like to see friends and take walks with them and talk business with them. Or if they’re not in the children’s book field, the children’s book world, or just the writing world . . . I have many friends, a huge number of friends, who are artists. I’d love to go to their studios and see what they’re doing. But I’m always a good part of my day writing. Less time at a conference. And interestingly, the stuff that I do when I’m in my jammies feels like fiddling. But when I’m dressed for work, I mean, looking like I’ve gone out of my business clothes, that’s when I do my best work.
That is interesting. I mean, everybody approaches it differently, that’s one of the interesting things about this podcast, is getting these different approaches that people take. Do you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or somewhere in the middle, or how do you typify yourself?
Well, you have to say fast, given how many books I have out, but each book is different, some books practically write themselves and other books, you’re banging your head on the wall. But I am a very fast rewriter. If somebody takes the book and it needs some work still, that’s where I put all my energy until that until it’s done.
Well, that’s the next thing I was going to ask you about was the revision process. So, when you have a complete first draft, do you go back to the beginning and revise before you submit? Do you use beta readers? Beta readers are all the thing right now, I’ve never had them, but I know lots of authors talk about that. And you did mention that your husband had read your book to help you with the sailing and so forth. How does all that work for you?
Well, I first of all, even if it’s an adult book, I read it out loud. That comes from all of my work and children’s books. I always read stuff out loud and that makes me hear things that . . . I have a little sign near my desk that says the eye and the ear are different listeners. If you are reading your own manuscript, you can elide, if you’re not reading out loud, so that you miss stuff, you miss the bad stuff. And if you are reading it out loud, then you are going to hear everything that doesn’t work. I’m a good reader, so I can sometimes almost even convince myself that a line works when it doesn’t. But I’m a line-by-line reader out loud. Then I go back and I will . . . with a picture book, I might revise it five, six, eight, ten times before I ever send it out. With a novel, I probably do two really solid revisions before I ever send it out. The longer pieces, and that includes . . . I have, actually, beta readers. Peter is one. My daughter, Heidi Stemple, is another one. And then I have other readers when I’m in Scotland. My friend Debbie Harris reads for me because I think that as much as I know about writing and as much as I know about editing, there’s nothing like a new eye to look at it and say, “I didn’t get this.” The connection was in my head, but I never got it down on paper. So, I really like having those beta readers. Every time, though, I choose somebody who has written something, who has published something, I think that that they are willing to be fierce and I need a fierce reader.
Yes, if, you know, if you give it to, in my case, say my mom or somebody, and they said, “Oh, that’s really nice,” that’s not helpful. You want people to say, no, I didn’t understand what was going on on page 37 and why your character did that stupid thing and all that kind of stuff. The big criticism is actually much more helpful than just than just praise.
That’s why I choose writers. All my children are writers, published writers. My friend Debbie is a well-published fantasy writer living in Scotland. So, there’s that professionalism that says, “:I’m not going to just say nice things about you.” My kids send me stuff for me to read that they’ve done. And I’m very honest with them. From the beginning, when they first started writing, and they would leave little things for me to read on the mantelpiece, I would say to them, “Do you want the Mommy answer or do you want the editor answer?” And they would say, “Oh, we want the editor.” And this is before they were published. I’d say, “First, I’m going to give you the Mommy answer. The Mommy answer is, ‘This is wonderful. Oh, you are such a good writer.’ Now, here’s the real truth from the editor. It’s very good. It still needs work.” So, since I was always honest with them, they’re very honest with me.
When your work does get to an editor, are you still getting, “This is very good, but it needs work,” from editors even at this point in your career?
This is what I’m getting a lot from editors. They will say to my agent, if I haven’t worked with them before, they will say to my agent, “Is Jane willing to work on this?” And I think to myself, “They think tjat a person who has done as many books as I have, would not work with that, would not be revising it?” It sort of makes me stunned. Who they’ve been working with? Of course, I’ll revise. I just recently revised something that an editor liked but still had some problems with. And I sat down and thought about what she said for about a week and a half. And then I said, “She’s absolutely right.” Then I rewrote it. And it’s much better. Will she take it? I have no idea, but it’s much better. And so, somebody will take it.
My editor, my main editor, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books, and she’s just wonderful for for pointing out those things that, “Yeah, I can make that better. You’re absolutely right.” And editors do that for you. It’s really quite wonderful to have an editor. And I wanted to ask you about the differences between writing for middle grade, young adult, and adult. Are those just . . . you know, to a certain extent they’re kind of just marketing categories, I guess. But there are . . . do you feel there are distinct differences among those three beyond just the age of the characters?
I think that that in some ways they sort of glide into one another, it’s true. And if you realize that the term young adult had not even been invented until the early 1960s when some somebody figured out that, “Oh, we can get an extra sale out of this if we put it in into that category, as well as perhaps also selling it as an adult book.” And many books are considered young adult/adult as crossover books. In fact, I think there’s now an actual crossover designation . . .
New adult, they’re sometimes called. New adult. Is that the term?
Exactly. That’s the term. So, the problem is in the, not in the book itself, but in the age of the main character. If you have a main character who is fifteen, sixteen, it’ll be nicely read by the younger ones and the young adults. If the character is twelve, thirteen, then a lot of young adults will not look at it. Adults will, but young adults will say, “I’m more interested in kids my age.” So, a lot of times you sort of weasel out of it. You either don’t say how old they are or you put them in exciting enough places that that anyone will want to read the book. I was . . . as I said early on, I was, as a child, reading books that were way over my head. And kids who reads at a very young age will do that. But a lot of young adult readers are really very happy just reading about themselves. I think the middle graders who are still trying to figure out what it is they would like to read, how far up they’d like to read, are the ones who are more flexible. And I think the adults are the most flexible at all because we’ll still read about kids, we’ll still read about Alice in Wonderland, we’ll still read about Huck Finn, and they’re not our age anymore. But we will also read about older people.
The problem is in the packaging. Because I did a book a few years ago with Midori Snyder called Except the Queen, and the two main characters were middle-aged. They were old fairies who have been kicked out of Faerie for spying on the queen, and so they no longer have the magic that keeps them young. So now they are on the high side of middle-aged. And there were two younger characters in it. They’re not the main characters, but guess who is on the cover? Not the main characters. The young woman who is one of the minor characters was here, and when we complained, they said this is the best cover for it, nobody’s going to buy a book with two elderly women sporting around. That’s the problem. Not the readership, but how they market the book.
Do you have a preference out of all the various age levels you’ve written for? Do you love writing in all these various niches equally?
My sweet spot is short. Meaning poetry, picture books, short stories. Or a short novel, but I have written a number of longer novels, which I’m very proud of, and it’s just that they go on and on and on and on for four or five years. That’s when I get tired of that, even if I’m doing my best work. So, I think I have a very short attention span. And a very short boredom span.
We’re getting within the last 10 minutes or so here, so I want to ask my big philosophical question. There’s three. The first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think anybody writes? As human beings, why do we write? And then the third one is, why write stories with fantastical elements in them? So, start at the beginning. Why do you write?
Because I can’t, because I have stories in my head all the time. I go to bed, I dream stories, I wake up, I remember parts of those stories. Sometimes I could use the parts, sometimes I can’t, which is frustrating, but I am never without ideas for books. In fact, I give ideas away to other people.
I get that a lot, actually, from writers who will say, “I can’t not write and it’s almost a compulsion.” I think there’s very much an innate writer . . . I don’t know if it’s a gene, I guess it’s related to some sort of genetic component . . . to people who become, at least become writers who are, you know, published and read and write at that kind of level. I’m reading to my wife Robertson Davies’s collection of posthumous essays . . . I always forget the name . . . The Merry Heart, it’s called . . . and he writes quite a bit about this topic and about being a writer and writers being almost born as opposed to made. Anyway. So, why do you think a lot of us write? Why do you think human beings write? Why do we tell these stories and put them down in words and share them with other people?
Partially because it gives pleasure, partially because it gives information, partially because it gives a new way of looking at something, but partially because human beings are, more than anything else, good liars. We make ourselves look better. We make our children look better. We tell stories about our family that make us look great. We boast about things. It’s a human failing that’s been turned into a human success, I think. We laugh in our family and say all Yolens, all of the Yolens we know, are good casual liars. They tell stories. They are funny, they make up stuff, but only our side of the family and one or two others, sort of outliers, became passionate storytellers. My great-grandfather, I think it was, had an inn in the Ukraine, and he loved, not the work of being a being an innkeeper—that he left to the wife and kids in the hirelings—he would sit by the fire and tell stories. And he used to tell stories that he knew came from somewhere else, but he passed them off as his own. So, he told a Yiddish version of Romeo and Juliet, which was his big piece. Now, I don’t think he ever told anyone that Shakespeare had written the story.
Well, Shakespeare probably got it from somewhere else, knowing Shakespeare
Exactly. We’re passing wonderful lies on.
When I was a kid . . . there’s a famous Canadian writer named W.O. Mitchell, who actually spent part of his childhood in the town I grew up in in Saskatchewan. And he had . . .there was a TV show on CBC, which were . . .I guess they were his stories, I don’t know, he hosted it anyway, dramatized stories. And the name of it was The Magic Lie. That’s what he’d like to call writing: the magic lie.
And that works for me.
And then the third part of the question, you have, of course, written stuff that doesn’t have a fantastical element, but you have also written a lot that does. So, why include things that are completely fantastical in these stories that we like to tell people?
Because people have been doing that forever. They’ve told folk tales and fairy tales and tales of magic and wonder. We all know we’re going to die. So, we make up these wonderful stories of what happens after, before, during, which we all hope that we will have wonderful weddings and marriages to a prince, probably, you know, a king, possibly. We want to change lives with our stories. I think those of us who write for children have a better chance of that than anyone. Once in a while, you’ll get a book that, you know, like Silent Spring, that will change a great many lives. Normally, adult books don’t change lives the way children’s book change lives, because we’re taking someone who has not yet fully constructed themselves. And the stories that we tell help them think in different ways, shape them.
I’m very aware of that. I mean, I get letters from children all the time and I and I meet grownups who say to me, the grandparents, you know, they say to me, “I read your stories all the time to my grandchildren because they were the stories I grew up on.” That makes me feel really old when they say that. But it’s true. Those are the stories that we carry with us into adulthood. And they have, for whatever reason, shaped our lives.
Certainly, the ones I read shaped mine, that’s for sure. I still remember the ones . . . you know, the stories I read as a kid are the ones that really stick with me far more than what I’ve read since as an adult. So, we’re just about out of time, so let’s find out, what are you working on now?
Well, The Sea Dragon of Fife, which is a short novel. I have a book of poems about the Jewish experience and the Shoah coming out called Kaddish. That’s for adults. I’ve written two books with one of my daughters that are being published, one that I wrote with her when she’s ten, and she’s now in law school, and the other we wrote after she said, “Oh, I’m so excited about selling this book. But, you know, I’m really going to be a lawyer.” And the next morning she had the start of a manuscript on my desk. So that’s it. Yeah, right. “OK,” I said, “stick to your day job, but you can write in the in-betweens.” So the one that’s coming out that she wrote with me when she was ten, which we have done significant rewriting since, I have to tell you, is called Nana Dances and it’s a picture book. So, it’s full of pictures and it’s all about the various nannies who dance with their children and boys, girls, different people of different shapes and sizes and colors. And it’s, I think, it’s just a very sweet and lovely book. I have a bunch of easy reader books coming out, two of which are based on the interrupting cow joke that one of my granddaughters used to tell me every time I would visit. You know that joke?
No . . .
Interrupting cow who?
Did you hear me move in the middle of your asking? So this is a cow that nobody in the stable likes because she’s always telling that horrible joke and she ends up with a variety of outsiders who love what she does. So, everybody lives happily ever after. I’m on the fourth book now.
Oh, yes, there’s many, many more. I’ve sold a book called Bird Boy, which is being illustrated, and it’s a kind of semi-sequel to Owl Moon, which I wrote, which won the Caldecott. Let’s see, what else have I sold? I have to get out my list of about maybe fifteen, eighteen more books. I have about twenty manuscripts out there. I have about, in total, 130 unsold manuscripts that are rotating around there and I’m always writing something new.
People tell me I’m prolific and I’m realizing that I’m not. That’s very impressive! It’s been great, Jane, to talk to you. I guess your website is the best place if people are looking to find out more about you?
It’s certainly the most accurate because my son Adam, who is my webmaster, and I work on it on a regular basis. If you go anywhere else, you will find that I have written over one hundred books. You will sometimes find that I’m married to Adam, who is my son. You know, I don’t trust anything other than an author’s own website because we know most about ourselves. We know what’s current, what’s not covered.
And it’s just janeyolen.com.
Ok, well, thanks so much for for doing this. Jane, I really appreciated talking to you. I certainly enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.
I did a whole lot. Thank you.
And best of luck with every single one of your many projects coming up
Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since. As a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated the story of the duck family to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim channeled his storytelling urge toward the production of speculative literature.
The majority of his eleven novels are written in satiric theological mode, including the critically acclaimedGodhead trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award twice, for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award twice, for his story “The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award once for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.
In recent years, he’s produced historical fiction informed by a fantastical sensibility, including The Last Witchfinder, about the birth of the Enlightenment, and GalapagosRegained, about the coming of the evolutionary worldview, and his novel-in-progress sardonically reimagines the 325 AD Council of Nicaea. The French translation of his Darwin extravaganza recently received the Grand prix de l’Imaginaire. His most recent work to see print is The Purloined Republic, one of the three novellas that constitute And the Last Trump Shall Sound.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you very much, Ed. Happy to be here.
Happy to make the connection. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at a convention or anything in person, but it was through Mickey Mickkelson, who’s my publicist and is doing some work as well with Arc Manor. I guess we made the connection because of And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which is out or about to come out. Is it out or about to come out? As we talk, because it will be out by the time this goes live.
September 22 is the pub date. I see you’re about to appear on The Coleman Show, which I’m also booked on. You’re doing that tomorrow, right?
Yeah. As we talk. By the time this comes out, this will all be a few weeks in the past. I sometimes forget that when I’m doing these things, that this is not a live broadcast, but it does not live, it is recorded. And at the time it comes out, all of this stuff will be out. Well, let’s that start, as I do, by taking you, as I like to say, I’m totally going to put reverb on it someday, back into the mists of time, where, as I also like to say, it is mistier for some of us than others. How did you become interested in, you know, you mentioned writing your first story when you were seven years old, so obviously, that came along early, but not just writing, but also science fiction fantasies specifically. How did that come about for you, and where did you grow up and go to school and all that good stuff?
Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a little town called Roslyn. I guess there are two different tributaries feeding the river of my imagination. One comes from low culture, sort of popular culture, the other from a more literary zone, high, high culture. I’d say, unlike the majority of guests you have on The Worldshapers, I was not a voracious reader as a kid. My introduction to genre was through the more tawdry venue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I still have the first, Forrey Ackerman’s sort of love letter to the history of horror films, and so was watching movies on television that had that fantastic sensibility that ultimately, I would argue, led to my producing prose fiction in that genre. My friends and I in high school subscribed to Famous Monsters and would go to each other’s houses to watch these movies. And we started our own filmmaking club.
Growing up in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, I was very near a large cemetery, and this became the setting for about half the movies that we made. But we did, these were 8mm home movies, but we thought of them as feature films, and we were in them, but we thought of ourselves as adult actors. But we did adaptations of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the other films we did had titles like Cagliostro, The Sorcerer, and The Futurians. But let me then jump to the other tributary of more literary or high culture. In my 10th-grade world literature class taught by the amazing Mr. Giordano (sp?), I came to understand for the first time that a novel was not simply about following the vicarious adventures of non-existent people, that a novel could be a matrix of ideas, and novelists were people who had something to say. And the syllabus was just extraordinary. We read Voltaire’s Candide, we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plays of Ibsen, Kafka’s The Trial, Madame Bovary by Flaubert. And I just was so entranced by the sensibility of those authors. They were people who did not settle for the received wisdom of their day. They stood outside of their cultures. They were at odds with conventional thought, and they tended to be very much religious skeptics, doubters. And not just . . . it was kind of like my inverse road to Damascus. You know, I wanted to sign up for the sort of honest atheism of Albert Camus and I, you know, and I thought maybe I could do it myself someday, that I could write a novel of ideas.
Science fiction, of course, demands that you play with ideas. It’s often called the literature ideas of ideas. You get this wonderful toolkit when you join that club of robots and time travel and rocketships, all of which become techniques for getting perspective on the world, for holding reality up to a kind of funhouse mirror and, you know, and then maybe telling people a thing or two, arguing for a way of seeing the world. And one day, I found myself possessed by an idea for my first novel.
When you were doing the film work, were you doing some of the scripting for those films where you’re writing for that?
Yeah, they were my . . . I guess there were like four of us who were in this, who had created this club, and I was sort of recognized me as the one who did pretty well with dialogue and was the writer of the group. But we all took turns behind the camera, we all took turns in front of the camera. I usually did the editing as well. I love the editing process. And I would say to this day, my fiction-making for me is filmmaking by other means, that when I cut into a manuscript, when I leap into the rough draft of a chapter as it comes pouring out of my printer and I sit down with a pencil and a cup of coffee, to me, trimming and reshaping the prose is analogous to what I did for many years editing films, trimming the frames, rearranging the images.
I have to ask if you still have the story of the dog family bound in yarn by your mother, you still have a copy of that.
I do! That managed to survive. I have it in a file upstairs. And I still have most of the 8mm movies that we made. Although I haven’t played them recently. I have a feeling the splices would fall apart, and the soundtracks may have, the tape may have degenerated. I’m afraid to find out.
Were you writing prose during that time as well, your teen years, and so forth? And were you sharing those stories with people? Or was it pretty much you were in that film making side of things?
Yeah, I mean, I had an urge to tell stories. I had, I think, a feeling for narrative, but I expressed myself in other media, the filmmaking . . . we put on some plays, I used to draw my own comic strips and comic books and, you know, didn’t turn to prose fiction until, you know, my first novel, really, though I always, I loved the medium of the novel from a very young age. I thought there was just something magical and luminous about those books in my parents’ modest library that I knew were fiction. And even before I was very adept at reading and way before I would imagine composing stories myself, I would take volumes off the shelf in my parents’ living room, and then I would impose on them my own novel. I would sort of be telling a story to myself as I was turning the pages of the novel, pretending that it was something that I had written.
I have to ask because so much of your work is, as you said in your bio, theologically inspired, did you have a religious upbringing, were you learning theological material during your youth?
No. My parents took me to Presbyterian Sunday School, but I think they were not really serious Christians themselves. I think they had a kind of inoculation theory: give the kid a little bit of religion, you know, lest he someday show up announcing that he’s decided to become a monk, and you deprived me of God, and how dare you not tell me about the divine! And, you know, I honestly believe that was their theory. So, I had . . .it was a very low-level experience. I mean, even though I did have that inverse road to Damascus I mentioned earlier, thanks to Voltaire and Camus, etc., there just wasn’t that much, there’s not that much to lapse from when you’re a sort of white-bread, you know, middle-class suburban Christian. So, the impulse to critique Christianity does not come out of any kind of trauma. I was not in rebellion against a religious upbringing. I’d never been assaulted by a nun holding a ruler or anything like that. It was much more, these voices spoke to me, these doubters like Camus and Dostoyevsky and Ibsen. And I just wanted to try that myself.
Well, you mentioned that you didn’t really tackle prose until you had the idea for your first novel. When did that come along? And also, what did you study in university?
I majored in English, and my speciality was creative writing, but I still wasn’t doing a lot of prose fiction. My main project was a screenplay, and I actually had Joseph Heller as a teacher, which was a wonderful experience.
And he was very interested in what I was doing. It was a course in playwriting, and he himself had a play running on Broadway at the time called We Bombed in New Haven. And he was taken with the comedy, the three-act comedy that I was producing in his class. But I did not come out of the program at the University of Pennsylvania with a belief in myself as a novelist or as someone who was going to get into this wonderful universe of science fiction. I became an educator for a while, and I had used my filmmaking experience to become a media educator and was hired by several public school systems to, like, teach animation to junior-high-age kids or teach students how to make slide tapes. But at that time, in my circle of media educators, there was a lot of discussion about the effect that mass media was having on children. And most of that conversation was about the deleterious effects of television and movies on kids. There were books like The Plug-in Drug getting a lot of attention, very anti-television. And I said to myself, “Well, I can understand why people are worried that that TV is turning kids into lemmings, but what about the contrary argument, that television has a kind of cathartic effect, and that television maybe drains off impulses that one otherwise might be inclined to act out in the real world, anti-social impulses.” And I said, “You know, there’s kind of science-fiction novel in there. What if there was a society that was totally pacifistic, where there’d never been a robbery or a rape or a killing? And if initially this is a mystery, how in the world did they achieve this, this blessed state?” And then it turns out that they have a technology that lets them sort of hook themselves up to their television sets, except they control the content. If they’ve had some bad experience that day, an argument with the boss, or maybe even getting fired from their job, you could go home and shoot the boss on television, and nobody would get hurt and would drain off your desire you might have to commit that sort of crime in the real world. And then the plot became, what if on this utopian planet an astronaut arrives, falls in love with one of these, they’re human migrants, falls in love with them and decides that she needs just a little bit of an aggressive instinct to be fully human, that maybe, you know, you’ve got to have a dark side, you’ve got to have that dark side for real, not just in your fantasies. And so, he injects her with a little bit of the violence that these people drain off into a rive, a moat that encircles their city. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. She has no immunity and becomes a maniac. And then he’s faced with this terrible dilemma: is he going to kill the woman he loves to save a civilization he hates?
So, the whole thing arrived full-blown, all three acts. I found an agent, and we discussed whether this was, in fact, a science fiction novel or just a novel of ideas. And we ultimately decided it should be marketed as science fiction. She took it to . . . Holt Rinehart and Winston at the time had a line of SF they were publishing, Larry Niven and Robert Checkley, and they did Heinlein. This was Donald Hunter, the late lamented Donald Hunter at Holt. And I was off and running. I never looked back. The book didn’t become a bestseller, but it got quite a bit of review attention. The Science Fiction Book Club picked it up, it came out in paperback, and I said, “Okay, I’ve sort of kept the commitment I made with myself way back in tenth grade to see if I could write a novel of ideas.”
I want to go back to the university and studying creative writing/ I often ask authors who have done that formally if it turned out to be helpful. It sounds like, in your case, maybe it actually was. Not every author tells me that it was. So, what was your experience?
Certainly, having Joseph Heller and his sensibility was a big influence on me. He was very self-effacing. I would say that, you know, Catch-22, as far as he was concerned, its unbelievable success was kind of a fluke. Every year many worthy novels come out and disappear and die a dog’s death. Now, that said, it was just, you know, Catch-22 is, as you might imagine, a touchstone for me, James Morrow the satirist. That said, the other creative writing classes I had were happening at a time . . . this is, what, circa 1968, ’69, before it was thought that you could teach the crafting of prose fiction systematically. And so, the only thing that went on in these classrooms was workshopping, because reacting to each other’s manuscripts, as opposed to, you know, the sort of, I wouldn’t call formulas, but the sort of incredibly good advice you get, you would get from, let’s say, a John Gardner in his book—On Writing Fiction, as I recall, is the title. And, you know, there was no discussion of how to negotiate the marketplace, what it meant to get a literary agent, how important that could be, you know, nor was there a whole lot of explicit teaching about how do you create a character? How do you structure a plot? You know, what are the techniques you can use to engage a reader? What is the difference between suspense and surprise, et cetera, et cetera? And so, yeah, I can’t praise the other aspects of the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the time. I suspect it’s rather different now, maybe much more influenced by institutions like Iowa’s writers’ workshops.
The playwrighting interests me, as well. I’m an actor. I’ve done quite a bit of stage work and have written a couple of plays and directed them and all that sort of thing, and I always feel that that’s helpful in writing my fiction in a way and that I always have a very clear image of where everybody is in relationship to each other in my head, in the scene. And I think some of that comes from writing plays. And then I also think, of course, the dialogue side of things. Do you feel that that background in playwriting and scriptwriting has benefited your fiction?
Yes, very much so. I sometimes think of myself as a playwright manque, though, of course, it’s even harder to convince money people to put on a play of yours than to publish your novel.
Yeah, that’s for sure.
To say nothing of filmmaking. But yeah, I do see my work, as it may be, both playwriting and filmmaking by other means, and I’m told that my novels are visual and vivid, and I do think in terms of scenes. Not all prose fiction makers do, they’re maybe a little more free form. They don’t break into discrete acts or scenes or sequences or the three-act structure. But that’s where I am. These epics of mine are not only patterned on the structure of films, but I actually draw inspiration a great deal from the Hollywood product. At least, it’s always, whenever I’m working on it, it becomes an excuse to look at a bunch of movies and see how I’m going to get energy.
When you, I mean, you mentioned doing it in high school, but have you done acting yourself since then?
Very, very little. No, I’ve fallen away from that.
Well, you know, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always try acting. There’s a good, solid career choice.
I think of the criticism from Peter Ustinov, who, as you probably know, was a man of many talents, a Renaissance man, and his whole family was into the arts. I mean, they were all musicians or writers or painters.
I think I read his autobiography, yeah.
Someone brought to the Bronx, brought to the family dinner, a guy she was dating. And they asked, “Well, what does he do for a living?” And he said he was a stockbroker. And they said, “You’re a stockbroker. Can you make a living from that? Why don’t you go into something safe, like poetry?” Because they were all successful. Not the norm.
No. My favorite actor joke, which I’ve heard a few times, is, “What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?” And it’s, “A pizza can feed a family of four.”
I’ve heard that joke as being the difference between a science-fiction writer and a pizza.
Yeah, it’s the same joke.
So, let’s talk about your creative process. We’re going to talk about The Last Witchfinder, which I’ve read a chunk of. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I certainly intend to. This came out a few years ago, but I’ll let you give a synopsis of it and explain what it is.
I had an amazing encounter, this would be 35 years ago, with a book by a physicist at the University of Massachusetts named Edward Harrison. The book is called Masks of the Universe. And the essential argument of the book is that we, the human species, will probably never know the Universe with a capital U. It will be, that kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge, will be denied to us. What we have are a succession, throughout human history, of universes, each with lowercase u, and this book, Masks of the Universe, is a kind of history of the evolution of human intellectual thought and scientific thought, vis a vis all these masks. So, Harrison takes us on a tour, from the magic universe of Paleolithic people to the mythic universe of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and other early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the divine universe of medieval Christian Europe, the mechanistic universe of Newton, the Age of Reason, and then our contemporaneous relativistic universe of modernity, of scientific modernity. Harrison is particularly, was particularly, obsessed with what he calls the witch universe, that time when everybody understood that demons were what made things happen, that the world was not so much enchanted as haunted.
It was called the Renaissance ex post facto. But I encountered this amazing sentence, and I just Xeroxed it, and I want to read it. This is from page 214 in Masks of the Universe. Harrison says, quote, “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes,” that is between the medieval and the Age of Reason, quote, “a bedlam of distraught world pictures terrorized by a witch universe, created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thrall to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” So, I read that sentence, and I said, “Oh, my God, there’s an idea for a novel, an entire society nearly destroyed by its own theology. I mean, I have to work with that someday. I have to be able to turn that into an epic, even if Harrison is overstating the case,” and I think perhaps it was. “But for the intervention of science, Europe would have destroyed itself. I’ve got to work with that theme!” But I couldn’t come up with an entree, year in, year out. How in the world could one traumatize an event so large and momentous?
And after a gestation of 15 years, I had a breakthrough, and I said, “You know, a character,” in this case, I intuitively knew she must be a woman, “a woman born in about 1678, would have lived through this amazing transition, this rotation from the witch universe to what we call retrospectively the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.” And so, The Last Witchfinder was born and became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifetime mission to try to bring down the parliamentary witchcraft statute of 1604. She has many adventures in the course of trying to fulfill this mission. It’s really, it’s both a mission and a pledge to her Aunt Isobel, a kind of deathbed promise. Isobel is herself mistaken for a witch and executed by the powers that be in the England of early modern Europe. Eventually, eventually, Jennet engages in a very creative act. She masquerades as a witch and in a sense then puts herself on trial for consorting with demons, and because she’s become good friends with the young Benjamin Franklin, she actually becomes a lover of Benjamin Franklin, this is circa 1731, she knows she will get publicity in Franklin’s periodical, the Pennsylvania Gazette. So, this sort of media circus trial occurs in Philadelphia, and Parliament takes note of it in England. And so, this is the kind of science fiction, I guess, that would be called secret history or hidden history. This is the real story that you’ve not known until now of why that statute was finally taken off the books.
So, once you had this idea, what did your planning process and research process . . . because clearly, you put a lot of research into this. I noticed in your foreword you were talking about a great deal of this is reality, with a few tweaks of what we . . . well, what we think is the real history . . . here and there to tell the story. So, what did your research and planning process look like? And is this typical of your work?
I always do a lot of research, and it’s mysterious to me. And I don’t want to become too conscious about it, self-conscious about it. How does one know when to stop the research and write the damn novel? I mean, my facetious answer to your question would be, first I write the novel, and then I do the research, you know, sort of retrofitting. But it’s more of a dance. It’s very complicated. As I did the research, a lot of actual history kind of played into my hand. I felt very fortunate that, for example, when Jennet is abducted by Indians around 1695, she’s now living, she starts out living in England, but then she goes to the colonies because that’s where her family has moved. She ends up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and it turns out that, in fact, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki in 1695.
A big breakthrough for me was, I always knew that I wanted to use not only Benjamin Franklin but also Isaac Newton as sort of personification of the two universes, the universes that are in play at this point in history. Franklin, sort of the avatar of the Enlightenment, cheeky and contrarian, as opposed to Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived. Very much of a piece with the Renaissance. And it turns out that they actually almost met in 1725. Franklin is in London. He has a commission from the royal governor of Pennsylvania to buy printing equipment. And he has a letter of introduction to Newton from someone in Newton circle, I think it was the physician Pemberton, who edited the second edition of Principia Mathematica. Newton does not want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, so the meeting never occurred. But in my novel, it occurs. I have Franklin and Newton in the same carriage together, but they just talk past each other. Franklin wants to discuss electricity; Newton is preoccupied with counterfeiters at that time and with biblical prophecy. And so, it’s not simply that they are from two different generations, this is the old Newton and the young Franklin, not just two different generations, two different continents, they’re really from two different universes: Franklin of the Enlightenment and Newton of the Renaissance. So I said, well, this is playing into my hands. This is a lot of fun. It’s going to work.
And then other facts, like the Baron de Montesquieu, who ends up defending Jennet at the trial she arranges for herself, really could have ended up in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a young aristocrat taking the grand tour that European aristocrats always took at that time. There was even, according to Franklin, on a witch trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey, at this time, and I simply moved it across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Franklin’s account of the witch trial makes it clear that it never really happened, it’s simply a hoax that he put into the Pennsylvania Gazette. But I decided to take Franklin at his word. So, I guess for me, Ed, the process was like walking through a field with all of these sort of pottery shards lying around, you know, and I would pick them up and examine them and try to fit them to each other and end up with an urn of my own design.
From what I know of Franklin, I suspect he’d like this story.
He comes off very, very well. Yeah.
Did your outlining . . . do you do, like, a detailed outline or just hit some high points and then go for it? What’s that process like?
I do. It’s a kind of freeform outline. You know, I wasn’t really sure how the book was going to end, though. And that’s true of almost all of my novels. I have to kind of feel my way to the climax. But I would never plunge into a project this ambitious, or any sort of a novel, without a rough sense of what the three acts were going to be. You can hear my playwriting heritage coming out here. But that said, I always appreciate a remark that the film director John Huston once made. He said, there comes a time when every film project when you throw away the script and make the movie, by which he means, you know, don’t let the script become your master. You must allow for improvisation, things the actors are going to bring to it, camera setups you never imagined until you were actually on the set, and so forth. And I think for me, at least with prose fiction, there comes a time when you throw away the outline and write the damn novel.
Talking about the three-act structure, you know, it just now occurred to me, but almost every play I see these days is actually two acts. People always talk about the three-act structure, but they’re generally presented as two acts.
It certainly was the classic structure of musicals, right? It was almost like an unwritten but inviolable law that every musical must have two acts with an intermission.
What’s your actual writing process like? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write with parchment, quill pen, and parchment out under a tree where an apple could fall on your head, or . . .?
I guess I wrote my first novel, The Wine of Violence, in longhand, you know, Bic pens on legal pads, and I’ve never been able to compose on a typewriter. I envy writers who could do that. So, I’d always have to . . . sometimes I would type it up myself, and then then I would often have to hire a professional typist to try to cope with all the notes I would put on my first typed draft. Now, of course, I use word processing. I’m working very hard on not being so distracted by the Internet that I stop because I just have to look up a fact, sometimes even because I know I spelled the word wrong, I have to stop to correct the spelling. These are terrible habits. And if any embryonic writers are listening, try to never acquire these bad habits that James Morrow has. I’m slow, methodical. It seems to take forever. In theory, every novel I write should be a year. I remember a remark that Stephen King makes in his quasi-autobiography, his book called Danse Macabre, “Any writer who can’t produce a novel in a year is merely dicking off,” and I agree with Stephen King, but somehow, it always takes two, three, four years. It’s been a lot of time on rewriting, workshopping, showing it to friends and colleagues. And also, I have to say, because I love the medium so much and regard it as such a privilege to work within the medium of the novel, I don’t want to surrender a given book. I want to live inside it.
And perhaps because my premises are so often ridiculous, preposterous, like Towing Jehovah, schlepping the corpse of God to its final resting place in the Arctic on a commission from an angel. Oh, come on. That’s so bold and bold and absurd that I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m living inside and retrofitting a whole lot of facts about life aboard a supertanker onto the story and talking to people who had actually lived on supertankers and then visiting, you know, visiting a lot of death-of-God theology, month in, month out, I started to believe that Towing Jehovah could be the case, but it took a while.
Well, your prose is very rich, and especially in The Last Witchfinder, you’re going for a bit of that archaic diction, I guess. Is that . . . what does your revision process look like? Does that kind of language flow out of you naturally, or do you go back and tweak it a lot to get to that level of . . . erudition, I guess.?
Yeah, Witchfinder was a difficult struggle in particular, because I was trying to . . . I was trying to hit the archaic qualities that we encounter in Restoration drama. And I read a lot of Restoration plays to try to get that voice right, and I read contemporaneous documents. And I have to say it’s the aspect of The Last Witchfinder that I’m least satisfied with. I’m not sure I got it right, but I was determined to try to not settle for modern English, where it becomes the reader’s job to imagine they’re speaking in idioms of the day. I was very influenced by John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is set in exactly the same time zone as The Last Witchfinder, Restoration England and Colonial America. I stole a lot of locutions from him that he had gotten from somewhere else.
But The Last Witchfinder was almost seven years in creation, and much of it was just, yes, endlessly revising the dialect to try to get it to sound right. You know, the language is in transition. They’re sort of shedding Elizabethanisms, sort of the language of Shakespeare, but a lot of that still stayed around. And so, with the novel I did subsequently . . . well, there was a modern novel in between, which was set in Victorian England. That was rather easier to do because we have a pretty good idea from Dickens how the Victorians spoke. But it’s less clear in the case of Witchfinder.
And I guess you still have to also make sure that your language is comprehensible to a modern reader.
That was the challenge, you know, and some of the positive reviews of Witchfinder complimented me on how you adjust to it fairly quickly. It seems very strange, all of this archaic diction. But you kind of figure it out, and you flow with it. I think the book is easier to negotiate than Shakespeare. For example, when you read Shakespeare, it’s a self-conscious experience. You’re constantly making little almost subconscious translations in your mind.
One reason he works better on stage, where you can kind of understand what’s going on from the action, even if you don’t know exactly. Of course, we should make the point that, at least according to the beginning of the book, you didn’t actually write it. It was written by Isaac Newton’s book, which I thought was hilarious, with all these old books that were, you know, they were actually writing these new books, and the authors weren’t really involved.
I guess that’s the other dimension of Witchfinder that owes something to my genre background. There’s a sense in which The Last Witchfinder is taking place in a universe that isn’t quite ours, a universe in which books are alive. They’re sentient creatures who have thoughts and agendas and who can nevertheless fall in love with humans, just as we fall in love with books, right? And they write other books. And what I was up to there and was, I knew the book was going to be, at one level, a celebration of the Enlightenment. I would argue that Harrison is really on to something, the Age of Reason, the scientific understanding of nature came along just when it was needed because the witch universe was a nightmare, a bedlam, as he puts it. At the same time, I said, you know, I don’t want to become an unqualified cheerleader for the Enlightenment because there is a case to be made against reason and the deification of reason, of the sort of church of reason that emerges during the French Revolution. That’s a dead end, too. And the critics of the Enlightenment always point to the French Revolution, that’s always exhibit A in any indictment of that period, which for me was, I guess I am a child of it, I’m a child of Voltaire and Candide, but this conceit of the Principia Mathematica and its somewhat sardonic understanding of the worl, enabled me to make the case against the Enlightenment through the voice of the Principia, which is privilege, which has perspective on all this. I wanted to avoid what I think is a pitfall of a lot of historical fiction, of the characters being acutely aware of how their descendants interpret their actions, which I think it is simply not given to us to know. I had an initial way of getting this perspective on history by having Jeanette’s Aunt Isobel, the woman whose death sends her on her great commission, having Isabelle writing an epic poem that she’s channeled from the ether that recounts, that narrates what’s going to happen in the next generations and the rise of experimental science. And then I said to myself, “Oh, no, that’s a kind of mystical idea, that’s one that’s at odds with the rationalism that I’m defending in this book.” So, I did something that was even more irrational than the epic poem. I did this crazy, this crazy, contemplative narrator. And I’m glad that you’re fond of it.
I guess it is Prin(k)ipia, isn’t it? I tend to give it more of a, like an Italian pronunciation, Prin(ch)ipia.
I think both are acceptable.
What’s the editing process like for you? What do editors come back to you suggesting you do at the editing level?
Well, when it comes to professional editors whose job it is, whose job description is to be an editor, that’s what it says on their door, Editor . . . the days of Maxwell Perkins, I think, are over; the days when somebody could take a manuscript that was kind of raw and rough and say, “Well, here’s how we can, here’s how I can work with this. And I’ll enter into a conversation with the author, and we’ll reimagine this book so that it’s really going to work for the reader.” That’s not what editors are paid to do anymore. They’re expected to acquire ready-to-run books on the whole. And so, I have rarely gotten suggestions that went very deep into the book. They tended . . . you know, the editor will send you a two-page letter with suggestions. And I respect the industry because the author has final cut. Rarely will an editor ever say, “If you don’t go along with this, we’re not going to publish your book”. So, I guess what I’ve said could be boiled down to the notion that you have to be your own editor. And that’s another thing that protracts the composition process for me because I don’t want to . . . sending a book out prematurely, that, I feel, is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You can’t count on an editor seeing its potential. The potential better be there upfront.
We’re getting close to the end of the hour, just a few minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions, and clearly, you have fun with those. And there’s three of them, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why literature of the fantastic in particular?
Well, why do I write? I write to change the world, to make it a better place now.
We’ve been talking about The Last Witchfinder, and I write because I feel so privileged to be part of what I would call the great post-Enlightenment conversation. The situation we find ourselves in, in modernity, where everything can be put on the table and where you can’t say, “Well, because I’ve had a revelation, we don’t need to continue this discussion any further,” that argument doesn’t work anymore. So, I just feel that I’m making my little, my small contribution to the, you know, to the fight against nihilism, really a fight against a kind of theocracy that pretends that mere human beings have ultimate answers. And they don’t. They don’t.
Why does anybody write? I can’t speak to my colleagues. Some of them would say they do it because it’s so much fun and I make money from it.
On the human scale, then, why do humans tell stories?
We are storytelling animals, Homo narratives, I think. But with science fiction in particular, I think you have an opportunity to enrich the vocabulary with which we address the big mysteries of existence, these questions of meaning, and how then shall we live? I mean, if you’re lucky, your book even ends up in the dictionary, a la Frankenstein and 1984. Frankenstein, you know, enlarged our vocabulary, it gave us . . the very name means, or has become synonymous with, the idea that with the power of science must come responsibility. And the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein is not that he was curious, I would argue, or not that he did this borderline blasphemous experiment, but that once he brought the creature into the world, he abandoned it. 1984, of course, the first and last time an author actually owned a year, expanded our vocabulary with terms like Newspeak and Doublethink and Big Brother. We have a way to talk about things that previously we couldn’t talk about. I think of Wells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, you know, a kind of metaphor for this brave new world of genetic engineering and the power we’re developing to manipulate the human genome. Certainly, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale just gave us the concept of the handmaid, this woman who’s under the thumb of a patriarchy. And these are all science fiction titles.
Even in the case of fantasy, it’s important to remember that it also stands against nihilism. The fantasy does not in any way argue the world is up for grabs, the way the nihilist would do and say, well, therefore, my authority is the last word, because we all know reality is up for grabs, there is nothing that’s grounded anymore, which would be sort of nihilism in a nutshell. Tolkien made the point that in a fantasy saga, the trees are real trees, and the grass is real grass, and the rocks are actual rocks. It’s not a fantasy world in the sense of everything being surreal or absurdist. There is an external reality up there, out there, and the very title, Lord of the Rings, I’ve always been fascinated that it points to the villain of the story, to Sauron. Why is that? And I think it’s because the main, the big idea that Tolkien is playing with is the nature of evil, not in some dopey Manichaean sense, but just the, you know, those who think that there is no external reality and therefore they can set the terms, they can set the terms of reality themselves. The line that Gandalf has, “Let folly be our cloak,” it would never occur to Sauron that the Fellowship is going to give up this power. Evil has far less imagination than people of goodwill possess, and I think that’s a very affirming idea, and I think that’s why the book, that novel, has the title it does.
And we’ll. . . what are you working on now? But first, we should mention that you do have something out, a brand-new novella in And the Last Trump Shall Sound with Cat Rambo, whom I’ve had on the show, and Harry Turtledove. So, maybe just briefly, what is that? I have a pretty good idea, but I’ll let you describe it.
And the Last Trump Shall Sound is a set of novellas that speculate on a near-future USA in which Donald Trump won a second term, and this was followed by the election of Pence, who also got a second term, whereupon the states of Oregon, Washington, and California come together under one flag, call themselves the nation of Pacifica, and secede from the Union. That was the premise as it was pitched to me by Shahid Mahmud, the publisher who came up with this idea because he was so distressed to see the way that the nation was being torn apart on the macro scale by the Trump phenomenon and families were being torn apart on the micro-scale. And he just thought, well, maybe science fiction writers can make a valuable contribution to that conversation. I turned him down initially. I said, “Shahid, I can’t work with this. The thought of Trump being re-elected and Pence getting two terms after that is so depressing. Sorry, I’m out of here.” And so, after I rejected membership in this committee, I remembered something that Shahid had said in pitching it to me, which was that Trump would be dead when the story opened. And I said, “Well, what if Pence is falling under the spell of a spiritual adviser who is not all she seems, and was, in fact, working for Pacifica. What if Pence becomes convinced that he could bring Trump back from the dead? That could be a lot of fun. All right.” So, the very next day, I said, “Shahid, is the slot still open? Can I still join your project?” And he said yes, and I’m really glad.
So, it is still science fiction/fantasy. It’s not just political commentary.
These three novellas, they’re all in the grand tradition of sort-of near future . . . not prophecy. I think the distinction that Orwell makes between a warning and a prophecy is very important. So, I don’t think we’re saying this is going to have to be how it turns out, but we are trying to just diagnose what’s happening, and we all come at it from three very different directions. I should hasten to add that when Trump is actually resurrected in the Washington National Cathedral, what’s going on is not supernatural. It appears that Trump has come back from the dead, but in fact, it’s an audio-animatronics robot.
And what else are you working on?
Well, let’s see. For once, I think I actually have written a novel in a year, as Stephen King prescribes. It’s called Those Who Favor Fire, and it’s a comedy about climate change and a title I’ve always wanted to use. Many years ago, I wrote a nuclear war comedy, or dark comedy, that saw print as This Is the Way the World Ends. I wanted to call it Those Who Favor Fire, but at the time, another work of fiction with that title was coming out, and my editor and I said, well, we want to avoid confusion. So, I finally got to use the line from the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice” as the title of my climate-change novel. And very briefly, it posits that the hollow earth theory is the case, and there’s actually a race of human beings living beneath the surface of our consensus reality. And they’ve got a problem with ice. Their side of the planet has fallen victim to global cooling. So, it’s an allegory, I guess, though I like to think I can avoid the usual pitfalls of allegory where things just map neatly onto each other.
Any indication of when that will be out?
Well, yeah, sure. It’ll be done in a year, and so it will be out next year, except, no, this is James Morrow, and I’m sure I will once again trip myself up with a long rewriting and workshopping process. And it’s not a book that’s been commissioned by a publisher. And, you know, I think I’ll take it to St. Martin’s Press, who did my last novel, to see hardcover print. But there’s no guarantees. It may or may not ever find a publisher. As you may know, I don’t want to spoil your day, Ed, it could even happen to you, a writer at my age can end up in a condition that’s called post-novel, where, you know, where people will take a much harder look at your sales figures and your status, and if you’ve not had a bestseller, it becomes really hard to unload a novel.
Yeah, well, here’s hoping. And those who would like to see how you’re doing, where can they find you online?
I have a website, www.jamesmorrow.net, and I have a Facebook presence of sorts, and I do some twittering, some tweeting.
Okay, I will put those links in, as I always do. And I think that’s about our time, so, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
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 Magazine, New Suns, The Mythic Dream, and various other anthologies, and she also writes nonfiction, which can be found in Uncanny, Strange 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.”
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.
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….
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.
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.
Fonda Lee is the author of the Green Bones Saga, beginning with Jade City, which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and continuing in Jade War, which came out in August. Book 3, Jade Legacy, is currently in progress. She is also the author of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.
Fonda’s work has been nominated for the Nebula, Andre Norton, and Locus Awards and been named two best-of-year lists by NPR, Barnes and Noble, Powells Books, and SyFy Wire, among others. She won the Aurora Award, Canada’s National Science Fiction and Fantasy Award, twice in the same year for best novel and best young adult novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black-belt martial artist, and action-movie aficionado residing in Portland, Oregon.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Fonda, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks, Edward, it’s great to be here.
Now, we kind of almost crossed paths last year at When Words Collide in Calgary, which is where you were born, right? You were born in Calgary?
Was that your first time at that convention?
No, I’ve been to that convention a few times and I’m gonna be there next year as the guest of honor. I still have family in Calgary, so it’s always a great opportunity for me to combine visiting family with making it out to When Worlds Collide.
Well, I always like to plug When Worlds collide because it’s such a great event. We go every year.
It is, yeah. I like the fact that it’s it’s a great size. It’s not too huge, but it’s still very vibrant. And I like the fact that it’s very much modeled after an SF con, but it is cross-genre, and so I always end up seeing some panels and talks about mystery and thriller and romance and other genres besides my own.
Even poetry pops up.
Yeah. I like it a lot. And so, since I have plugged it now, we have plugged it, we should mention that the website for it is whenwordscollide.org. It’s capped at 750 or something like that, or 500, I don’ remember what it is.
Yeah. And unfortunately, I won’t be there this year because I’ll be traveling in Ireland before Worldcon in Dublin, but I will be there next year and I’m always happy to make it over there when I can.
Unclear. Still up in the air. I’ve got a bunch of travel for the rest of the year, so I’m trying to parse it out so that I’m not totally overloaded. I actually have to write a book sometime this year.
That’s such a nuisance, isn’t it? All these other things you can do, and then, oh, yeah, you’ve still got to write the books.
Well, and speaking of writing books, we’re going to talk primarily about the Jade–I guess it’s called the Green Bones Saga, is the name for the series. I am reading Jade City. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read quite a bit of it, so I have a good sense of the setting, and I’m enjoying it very much. And Jade War is…is it out now? This is July 15, I guess, when we are conducting this conversation. Is it out, or is it coming out later this month?
It is not out quite yet. It comes out next week. We are one week away from release.
Well, it will definitely be out when this goes live, so…
So, we’ll talk about that and how it all came about. But to start with, I always take my guests back into the mists of time–further back for some of us than others, and my mists of time are starting to get quite far back–to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing science fiction and fantasy, and secondly, how you started writing. You were born in Calgary, but I know then that you moved to the States, so how did that all work out and when did writing kick in for you there?
Yeah. So, I wanted to be a writer when I was quite young. I think I was probably around ten or so. And I was a voracious reader as a child and loved to make up stories. So, at some point I told my parents, “I want to be a writer,” and I think they said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and patted me on the head and encouraged me to get a real job that would allow me to support myself as a functional adult when I grew up. And so, over the rest of my childhood, writing was something that I still loved to do. I always was doing it in my spare time. I had an extremely boring and long forty-five-minute bus ride to school and then another forty-five minutes back, and did not have, at that time, Gameboy or an iPad and whatever else that kids have these days to distract themselves. So, I had a very large pad of paper and I wrote a novel. So, my first novel I wrote when I was in fifth grade, and it ended up being 300 pages of handwritten prose about a young dragon and his motley crew of assorted magical forest friends on a quest for a magical amulet. That was my very first novel, which is possibly still bound with elastic bands in my parents’ attic. I then wrote a second novel when I was in high school that was a pulpy superhero saga, where I cast all of my classmates into this story about cyborgs and superheroes and nefarious corporate tycoons, and printed it out as a graduation gift to all of them. I wrote it, co-wrote it, with a classmate of mine during biology class by passing a graphing calculator.
What do they call that? Tuckerization. when you use real names in your book?
Yes. So that was that. And then I…I didn’t really think that writing would ever amount to more than that for me. I went off and got a business degree, and then an MBA, and I worked in management consulting and corporate jobs and eventually ended up…well, lived in Toronto for a while, then ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, to work at Nike, which is located here. And it wasn’t it until I was in my thirties when I kind of had this epiphany that I wasn’t writing anymore because I just gotten way too busy. I had a full-time job, I had two small children, and writing had just completely fallen off to the wayside. And that’s when I realized, “Wow, something really feels like it’s missing in my life and I need to get back to what I really enjoy.” So I took writing much more seriously than I ever had before and made changes to my work schedule, to what my priorities were in life. And then, once I did that, I was like, “No, I’m in it 100 percent. I want to be published and I want to make this my career.”
Well, you mentioned that you were a voracious reader. What were some of the books that you read that… because clearly you were reading the kinds of books that led you to write your first story as a fantasy.
Yeah. So, I was a fantasy/science fiction reader from the start. I loved…The Chronicles of Prydain was one of my favorite early books. I read Monica Hughes. I don’t know if many readers remember Monica Hughes books. She was a Canadian science fiction author.
Yeah! Devil on My Back was a book I really loved when I was a kid. I read, well, Narnia, of course, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, all of those books. And I also loved animal stories. I read, like, all of those Black Stallion books.
Oh, me too. You know, I always like to point this out. Walter Farley actually wrote science fiction in the that arc with…the Island Stallion books actually have a science fiction twist.
Yeah! Yeah, so I loved those stories as well. So, I graduated later on in my teens to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, all of the science fiction/fantasy greats at that time. So, I’ve been very much in this genre as a fan since the start.
Well, those are all the same books I read, which…and I also wrote my first…well, I didn’t write it, I didn’t write my novel quite as young as you, but you were mentioning it, and I just happened to have it on my desk, my first novel, which I wrote when I was fourteen. And you were…yours was 300. Mine was only 201 when I hit THE END, so you outdid me. And it’s in a binder that says “Eddie Willett, Algebra,” on the front of it.
Oh, that’s great. It’s an artifact now.
And it has little drawings of race cars on it. I sometimes take it to school readings to show off. So, how did the first…was the first book you wrote trying to get published, published, or did you have some false starts along the way? How did you break in, I guess?
I wrote a practice novel that I knew would not be published, but I just wanted to teach myself how to write a novel. So, I wrote a novel that never saw the light of day at all. Then I wrote a young-adult fantasy novel that I wanted to see published and I began querying it after it was done. It went through quite a few rounds of querying and it picked up some interest from agents, but nothing…but it didn’t go anywhere beyond that. And while I was querying that novel, I wrote Zeroboxer, which would become my debut. And I took that novel, as well as the one I had been querying previous to it, to a writing conference here in Portland called Willamette Writers. And I didn’t really know which of these projects I should pitch, but Zeroboxer was hot off the press, I had just recently finished writing and revising it and felt like it was in shape to start being sent out, so I pitched that, and I got a lot of agent interest. A number of agents said, “Send me the manuscript right away.”
So at that point, I sent out queries to those agents as well as others that were on my list, and within a couple of weeks in offers of representation, I signed with my agent now, who…I’ve had him since the start…and we did a round of revision, took it out, and within three months we had an offer. So, between me finishing that novel, that would have been August…that conference would’ve been August of 2013. And we had a book deal in December of 2013. So when it happened, it happened quickly.
It doesn’t happen that way for everyone.
I know, it’s funny, because publishing often does feel like it’s slow, slow, slow, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Then it happens and it’s like, boom, all these things start cascading.
Well, I often ask authors if they showed their work to people when they were starting out, but clearly you did, since you wrote with a classmate and put all your classmates in it and gave it to them as a graduation present. And the reason I asked that is because it’s…for me, that was when I kind of discovered that, “I’m writing stories that people actually do enjoy reading.” Did you have any formal creative writing, training or anything along the way? Or were you just…you read and then you wrote, which is what I did, so I often ask that question, too.
Yeah. So, I did not, when it came to formal educatio. In fact, I regret that fact, because when I was in college, I took an English class, and then I think…I probably took a couple of English classes that were required. But I also had finance and accounting and marketing and all of those. And my English classes were…the English department was sort of against giving out As to what no matter what I did, I would always get, like, a B-plus, sort of regardless of, you know, the quality of whatever essay I was writing. It seemed like everyone in the class got somewhere between like a B-minus and a B plus. So, you know, academic overachiever that I was, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to have this dragging me down.” So, I ended up not taking future English classes in in the latter half of my undergrad except for one class that I couldn’t resist. And that was a class on the history of science fiction. And I ended up doing a term paper on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we read stories by Sawyer and Bradbury. And that was, of all the classes I have taken…I don’t remember a thing from Finance 101, but I remember that undergrad science fiction class.
But, in terms of craft of writing, once I started getting serious about it as an adult, I took an online writing class through continuing-ed classes, I applied and got into the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop–which I’m going back to this year as a faculty member, which is pretty cool. And those were ways for me to get into, first of all, the discipline and habit of writing and treating it really seriously and improving my craft, and also a way to meet other writers and find a community and get validated that, yeah, like, “This is this is really something I could do and want to do.”
Have you ever had any writing groups that you belong to, like critique groups or anything like that, that some writers have?
Yeah, I have…actually my Viable Paradise classmates. I’ve asked them to read for me on occasion. I have a beta reader group. So, I don’t have a critique group that follows the model of meeting once every couple of weeks or every week to share small pieces. I need to write my novels in isolation and I don’t show them to anyone until they’re in pretty decent shape. So, I’ll go for a year or more without showing my work to anyone. And that’s…especially with these novels, thay’re so long. So, I need to write by myself and get it into…see the whole shape of it first. And then I will send it out to beta readers. I’ll have a few people read it and I’ll send it to my agent and he reads it before it goes to my editor.
Well, we’re going to focus on the Green Bones Saga as an example of your creative process, but I did want to mention your earlier books, too, because you started in YA, and now you’re writing adult. And I’ve kind of crossed that divide myself, and back and forth, and sometimes there seems to be…and I was reading an interview with you in Locus, actually, and you were talking about this. There can be a kind of a confusion sometimes if your voice is YA, but your story is more adult, and I think you mentioned that in connection with Zeroboxer, and I’ve run into that, as well. So, what in your mind is the difference between writing YA and writing adult, and how do you go back and forth between them?
So…over the years it’s clarified in my mind that young adult is very much about voice and perspective. I don’t approach the writing of my YA novels differently than my adult novels, process-wise, the same amount of work goes into developing the world and the characters and the storyline. But with my young adult novels I have…I’m conscious of wanting to make them much tighter in terms of the perspective and making sure that that teen mindset, that teen voice, is there, because you can have any number of things going on in a YA speculative fiction world.
Exo is a good example of this, my duology. It has not just global stakes, but interplanetary stakes, where there’s a war between alien races and Earth is potentially caught in the middle, and there’s…entire human cities get demolished. So, it is very…it’s the same stakes as you would find in any big space opera. But it is very focused on the main character, this seventeen-year-old guy named Donovan, and everything is filtered through his experience and him trying to figure out what he should do, what his responsibilities are to his friends, his family, his cohort, to humanity. And that is, I think, the defining characteristic of young adult, is that, no matter what’s going on, it is still about the teen character.
And a good example of this is Hunger Games. Hunger Games…by the end, Katniss is leading a revolution against the capital, but it doesn’t zoom out like an adult novel might and go to whatever political machinations are occurring in the glass towers of the capital. It’s always with Katniss and her situation, her romantic tribulations and her struggle to survive and so on.
So, with my adult fiction, I feel a lot more free to expand the perspective and the scope. And that was certainly the case with the Green Bones Saga, because I knew from the start that it would be a family saga, and that it wasn’t about one character, especially one teen character. It was going to be a cast of characters, different ages. Their relationships were gonna take center stage. The world was going to be a very…there was gonna be a lot of stuff happening in different places. So, from the start, it was pretty clear to me that it was an adult novel. And my very first novel, Zeroboxer, I think could have gone either way. And that was..it ended up being picked up by a young adult imprint and published as young adult, but looking back on it, it could have gone either way. And now I’m more cognizant of deciding early on, figuring out early on what type of story this is.
See, what happened in my case was my…I wrote under the pseudonym E.C. Blake–who was a guest host on here and interviewed me–E.C. Blake interviewed Edward Willett in an earlier episode of the podcast. E.C. Blake wrote a fantasy trilogy, Masks of Aygrima, with a fifteen-year-old female protagonist. And it was always conceived as a YA book in my mind. But DAW wanted it, and DAW doesn’t have a YA line, so it was published in the adult fantasy market. And I got it from two directions, with people saying, “Oh, this read like a YA book”–well, yeah–and others saying, “Well, this is too adult for my YA readers.” So, yeah, I’ve been caught like that too. And the funny thing is Worldshaper, my latest novel from DAW, is up for a…well, it’s longlisted for the Starburst Award for best young adult novel.
Yeah, but there’s not a teenager in the entire story. The main character is in her late twenties, and I still don’t know how it ended up being considered a YA novel. So…
Well, there is a grey zone, certainly, there’s kind of this blurry line, and what I see is a lot of young adult conventions filtering up into adult fiction. There’s more adult spec-fic these days that features young protagonists that kind of adopt some of that YA pacing and tone. So, there is certainly a gray zone in between there, but eventually, at the end of the day, your book has to sit on a shelf somewhere and the publishing powers that be need to be able to tell the buyers at bookstores this is where you’re your book is going to sit.
And the young adult’s over there, and the adult’s over there, and they’re two different things.
Well, let’s talk about the Green Bones Saga. Well, first of all, perhaps a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to give away, because if I talked about it, I might give away something you don’t want to give away so you synopsize it, and then we’ll go from there.
So, the Green Bones Saga is a modern-era epic urban-fantasy gangster-family saga that I have on multiple occasions described as The Godfather with magic and Kung Fu. It takes place in a…
That’s pretty much I would have described it, so…
It seems to work for people. You know, it’s nice when you can encapsulate your book in a couple of sentences, because you get asked to do it quite a bit. So, it is set in a secondary world on this fictional Asian-inspired island metropolis called Kecon. And what distinguishes this island is that it is the world’s only source of magic jade. And this magic jade is this resource that the Keconese people have long had to themselves. And it gives those who wear it these superhuman abilities that are not unlike superhuman abilities you might see in Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu-movie martial-arts heroes. So they can…they have enhanced strength and speed and perception. And they can, not exactly fly, but they can, you know, jump great distances.
So, they have over time developed this warrior caste called the Green Bones. And the Green Bones can use jade, but not without cost, because it’s not like anyone can use it, they have to train for a very long period of time. And if you have too much jade or you’re too sensitive to it, bad things happened, including madness and death.
So, the story follows one of the two clans that ostensibly rule the city. And these two clans used to be united back when they were patriotic organizations that fought against foreign colonialist powers, but have since become rivals. And the No Peak clan is one of these clans, and it’s led by a family called the Kaul family that has this aging, bitter patriarch who has four grandchildren. And the story is really about them. The brother Lan is the head of the family now, and he has a younger brother, a younger sister, and they have an adopted sibling. And clan war is looming on the horizon. And one thing leads to another and all hell breaks loose. So that is pretty much the summary of Jade City. And Jade War…
I think the title gives something away there.
Yeah! So, Jade War is the second book, and it expands on a lot of the things that happened in Jade City and takes this conflict between the clans and then sees it become an international one on the world stage. So, that pretty much sums it up. You know, it’s very much a mash up of things that I’ve loved. I’m, you know, a big fan of. of Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu films, gangster movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and epic fantasy. So, all of those came together and and became this mash-up in my mind that I created in the Green Bones Saga.
Was there…and I guess this applies to all your novels..is there a kind of..do ideas come to you in sort of the same way, is it like an image, or something you’ve read, or two ideas banging together? Or…how do how do stories begin for you? And how did this one in particular begin?
Yeah, so, stories come to me in different ways. With Zeroboxer, it was the storyline that came to me first, the plot came to me first. With my young adult duology, Exo and Cross Fire, the character came to me first. And with the Green Bones Saga, it was the world.
So, this story came to me actually as just the premise of this magic jade and the aesthetic that this world would be, this kind of gangster fantasy. And the first thing I wrote down in my writing notebook was Jade City, was the title. So, that was the first spark. And I wrote Jade City, and then I wrote, “Modern-era world where combat is hand-to-hand. There’s guns and cars and so on, but power rests with those who have magic jade.” And that was it. I had no plot, I had no characters, I had nothing. I just had that idea. And then it sat in my notebook for a very long time. And like many good ideas, it accreted material around it like a piece of sand in a oyster shell, until I had enough to grasp onto it and then start turning it into a book.
Well, and what does that process look like for you, when you start building on the initial idea? How do you then develop a story, and do you end up doing a detailed outline, or are you more of a “let’s just get started and see what happens” kind of writer?
I do write an outline. For me to start writing. I need to know the beginning, I need to know the end, and I need to know some of the big turning points in there between the beginning and the end. And I won’t start writing until I have that. And I will do at least two to three months of just research and brainstorming. And for every book that looks different, but it involves a lot of reading and just absorbing as much information as I can that will help me in that creation process.
What are the things you researched for Jade City?
So, I did everything from, you know, watch a lot of Hong Kong crime dramas to read up on the gangs of New York and the history of the Italian American Mafia and Cosa Nostra, and articles, non-fiction articles about the Yakuza and the Triads and, you know, everything. And oh, jade mining, you know, drug production and smuggling. Anything that I knew would kind of have some bearing in this fantasy world. So I kept a notebook. I have a Scrivener file where I’m just dumping loads of research, and I’m just collecting a lot of stuff and seeing the connections and figuring out how that works. So, for example, you know, I’m seeing connections between…how the Italian-American Mafia family structure could be combined with, like, the flowery titles and ranks used in the Triads. “OK, I like both of those ideas. How am I going to work those into the story?” So, things like that.
And then I will do a lot of just free writing, outlining, writing, like character, little profiles of characters. And then at some point I feel like I have enough of an outline. The outline is helpful to me only as a safety net, for me to feel like, “Oh, I can finally start writing,” because I know that it will change. I know the outline is most likely not going to stay the same. But I have it to at least get started. So, then I set everything aside, close all the research files so that I’m not tied to them, I’m just keeping them in the back of my mind. And then I start writing.
You mentioned doing character profiles. What do those…well, first of all, how do you find the characters that you need for the story and how do you go about developing them?
So, they they start off as fulfilling particular roles in the story I want to tell. So, the siblings, I knew the main characters would be members of this family. And so, it helps to have a vision of what you want this story to be. And because I knew this was a family saga, I knew the main points of view would revolve around this family. And then I started kind of fleshing out, what would the roles be? “What characters do I want to have in this story?” So, I knew there would be a character who is going to be sort of the responsible one, you know, the prudent, reasonable leader. And, you know, he was the elder brother.
And then I knew that other characters were going to be playing off of each other, and there was going to be a much more emotional, impulsive, charismatic brother, and he would be this counterpoint to his older brother, but he would also have this rivalry with his sister, who was very similar in age. And she was bringing a different perspective because she rejected their upbringing and all the constraints of that patriarchal society and left. And she’s coming back. So, I knew that she would have a particular character arc.
So, I just started off, and then I was like, “Okay, well, I also want a character who is new to this, like, he’s the protege, and through him, I’m going to be able to introduce how this jade magic works and how people come up in this world, because that’ll be…the fact that he’s in school, he’s going to be able to show the reader, you know, how people train to be able to harness this magic.
So, they start off as fulfilling specific rules in the story, and then they gain their own unique identity, and then the story starts responding to them. So there’s this interplay. It’s not like, you know, the characters come first and then the plot, or the plot comes first and then the characters, they’re very much sort of interacting, and there’s this whole iterative process between them and the storyline.
Characters change as you write, at least, mine do, from what you might have initially. But as you throw them into situations, you see how they react and how they interact with each other. And I’m always fascinated by that, because these things…we set out with an idea in our head, and yet somehow, as the words flow out of your fingers, it’s not always an entirely conscious process. It’s quite fascinating to me.
Yeah, definitely. I mentioned the outline changing. I initially had…even though I knew how the story would end, I didn’t have the specifics of it correct. So, I had an idea of what the final big climax would be. And as I wrote, I realized, “No, based on what the characters would do, that’s not going to be how it how it goes.” So, you’re right, there’s this…things change, because you get to know the characters better. You start off…they sort of start off as puppets doing your will, having…you’re just trying to move them around. And then by the time you’re finished, get to near the end of the book, you know them a lot better, and you go back to the beginning and start revising and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, no, that’s not really how he would say that. So, yeah.”
So, yeah, and I want to talk about revision process in a mintue. But I also wanted to ask about the…there’s a great fascination in people who are interested in writing fantasy with creating magic systems. And this one is unique, I think. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this. And I kind of like the fact that it’s just this one single magical thing in a world that is otherwise very much like ours, and how that changes things. Is that kind of what you were going for?
Yes, definitely. I really like my fantasy to feel very grounded. And, you know, I’ve never really gravitated towards writing high fantasy, if you will. And before I wrote this series, I was writing science fiction.
And this does have a certain amount of a science fiction feel to it just because it is a high-tech world.
Right. And I’ve had that comment before, that this feels like a fantasy where the magic is treated in a science fiction away. You know, there’s…you may not have reached this chapter yet, but there’s a scene where the Jade is being referred to by these foreigners, and they’re calling it bio-energetic jade. Because, you know, it’s not magic in this world. It’s magic…
To us, but the characters just see it as, “This is just the way it was,” just sort of…I mean, it’s something that we don’t totally understand. I mean, I’m not sure I totally understand quantum physics. It’s magic to me, but it exists. And so, these characters don’t think of it like magic. In fact, there’s never the use of the word magic in the entire series.
So, I like to write the use of, the existence of, this substance as a way to to heighten and examine the social conflicts. So, the fact that this jade exists creates the particular structure of this civilization, and the fact that other countries are coveting it and that technology is impacting its use is also playing in here, because if there was this substance in our world, you know, it wouldn’t be like a fantasy novel where there is birthright and only certain people are born with magic. There’s a drug being created that would allow other people to use it. And that’s just feels very real to me. Like, yes, of course, like, someone would apply science to this magic thing and figure out how to use it more widely. And so, all of those things are playing into the story.
And it was very much my intention that, you know, this magic substance is a resource. And with any scarce resource, it’s going to create disparity of distribution. It’s going to create conflict. It’s going to create, you know, social questions of, you know, how it’s viewed religiously and socially. So, all of that is part of the story, and it’s not, you know, it’s not treated like magic. It’s just treated like a fact.
In the family and the clans and the whole society, there are all sorts of different points of view being presented and bouncing off of each other. And I noticed in your previous interview that you were a high-school debater, which stuck out for me because I was also a high school debater. And I do think–and I think you mentioned it, this was in the Locus interview–when you do formal debate, you have to argue both sides.
It doesn’t matter which one you personally are drawn to, you have to argue both sides to the best of your ability. And I think that does come through in the book.
Yeah, I think it is very much present in, I think, almost all of my writing, honestly, I feel like I don’t ever want to write just obviously good characters and obviously bad characters. I like to write stories where you can see the point of view of the other side. Like, the main antagonist in the Green Bones Saga is Ayt Mada, who is the leader of the opposing clan. And, you know, she makes some pretty good points. You know, she wants to kill all of our protagonist characters, but, you know, she has reasons for why she’s doing what she’s doing. And I like to think that I can rewrite the story again from the other clan’s point of view and make a case for your sympathies that way.
That was certainly my approach when I was writing my young adult duology as well. It would be easy to write a teen protagonist who is just, you know, plucky hero fighting against the aliens. But I made him a security officer whose job is to enforce the laws under alien governance. And, you know, there is…because of his position, he can see a lot of the good things that have come out of the intergalactic trade and being part of this larger alien empire. And so, there’s…I like to…I like having characters in that gray zone of, you know, moral ambiguity and which side is right. Is there a right side? And I think that does come through in my writing, even if it…regardless of whether it’s YA or adult or fantasy or science fiction.
So going back to your actual process, what…you said, you have to write in isolation, do you sit at your desk for four or five or six hours a day in your home office? Do you go off and write in a notebook under a tree somewhere? What’s your actual writing process look like?
Much more like the former, the sitting in my chair at the desk for four to five hours. Not always in my home because…well, sometimes in my home, maybe about half the time. and sometimes I just need to get out and have a change of scene. So, I’ll go to a coffee shop or the library and I will write there. But I try to…not necessarily write the same amount of time or the same number of words every day, but I have short-term and medium-term goals that I set for myself by backing in from what I need to get things done. So, I know that I have to hit some deadline at some point and I’ll back out from there and say, “OK, well, that means I need to have a second draft by this date, which means I need a first draft by this date so I have time to give it to better readers…” So, if I know when I need to get a first draft done, then I’ll be like, “OK, I really should try and get the first half done by the end of summer,” for example. And that means I need to really get about X number of words, or this week I’m going to try and get these two scenes done. and then I’ll block out time to do that. So it’s, you know, it’s always thrown for a loop by the schedule, whether I’m traveling or, you know, other things are going on.
But I work best when I am by myself and it’s quiet. I don’t even listen to music. I put on noise-canceling headphones with ambient noise just in the background, like rain falling–it’s actually quite easy because Portland is usually raining, so there’s usually background noise of rain falling–and a big cup of tea. If I can get a solid three to five hours, that’s what I’m most productive.
Now we’ll circle back around to the revision process. So, you mentioned first draft, second draft, so I’m guessing you do a complete first draft and then go back and rewrite from the beginning. Is that how it works?
You know, it depends. It’s kind of…every book sort of is different in that regard. I don’t always do a full first draft and then go back from the beginning and start rewriting. Sometimes that is the case. That was the case with Zeroboxer. I just got, boom!, all the way through and wrote a first draft, but other books have sort of defied that model. Jade War is a good example because I had multiple POVs and they were in different places and I couldn’t write straight through. I would lose the thread of the overall narrative, so I had to write non-linearly. I would write one character’s POV, and then I would write another character’s POV, and I would try to figure out how to stitch the…where they were intersecting and where they fell in the overall timeline…and then stitch them together. And it was…it was more like quilting then like one straight, you know, knitting process. So, I couldn’t even tell you what draft I was on at any given time because it would be like, “I don’t know, is this like 2.34?” Because there would be parts where I had written it and then I had revised that part, but I had still not written the first draft of this other part. And so, it was just all piecemeal and all over the place. So, you know, at some point the idea of even like first, second draft just sort of fell apart.
Once you had it to the point where you considered it more-or-ess complete…you mentioned beta readers. So, what do they provide for you?
So, I will send it to beta readers to have them read the whole thing and give reactions on the structure, which parts felt like they needed more work. Maybe where things were not clear. It really is just to get outside eyes on it.
How many do you have? And where did you find them?
I have, you know, usually between three to five people read it, not including my husband, who I also use as a reader. And I’ve found them from, generally, just the writing community here in Portland, and other spec-fic writers who are also working on novels, because though we don’t have these expectations of meeting every second week, we just are very much…we’ve set it up so that it’s a…we get in touch when one of us has a novel that is done.
So you do the same thing for other writers as well?
And then once it gets to the editor, what what does your editorial feedback look like?
Well, my editor is…I’ve had multiple editors. So, I have an editor for my YA–I’ve had two different editors there–and obviously my editor at Orbit, and usually it goes to my editor, and then there’s silence for a little while, and then I get this very long, very daunting letter back, you know, with all the reactions and what needs work. And then I look at the letter and I panic for forty-eight hours, and then I set up a phone call with my editor and we talk through it.
And I find…I really…the editorial process is one of the best parts of of the whole writing process, even though it is very stressful at times. It’s where the book really gets better. The editorial feedback is just so intensely valuable. And the editor is both a source of misery, but a real…but also, your greatest champion. Because my editor wants the book to be true to my vision and to be the best possible version of itself that it can be. So, it’s really a partnership. And my editor is frighteningly efficient. I think I turned in Jade War…I can’t even remember exactly when I turned it in…but she read it and had this long edit letter for me like two weeks later, I don’t think I’d even really fully recovered from finishing it and handing it in. So when the edit letter came back it was like whiplash, ’cause she had read the whole thing and gotten back to me with notes so quickly.
But I think a lot of aspiring writers fear the editorial process. I get this a lot. I’ll teach writing workshops and writers will say things like, “Oh, but like, you know, what’s it like when the editor wants to change your book? Like, do you have to listen to them?” And these…they’ll have comments that make it seem like the editor is your enemy. And, you know, “What do you do if they want you to change your book?” Most of the time, that is not not how the relationship goes at all. I mean, I’m not saying there are no bad editor relationships. There certainly are. But in my experience, you know, you and the editor are working toward the same goal. And every one of my editors has made my books better.
Well, you have a pretty impressive list of awards that you’ve picked up along the way. What have those meant to you, to get that kind of professional feedback?
I mean, they’ve been…they’ve meant a lot because, you know, they are…they’re first of all, a sense of, “Wow, like people actually are reading my books and they like them and they think they’re good.” So, I often say this, it’s funny because awards are both very meaningful and meaningless at the same time. So, they are very meaningful in the sense that you have received outside validation that you’re doing pretty well and other people in the know, especially if it’s a pure award like the Nebula nomination, I know I’m being nominated not just by, you know, any random person, but all my fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, whom I respect and I know that that isn’t a nomination that’s given lightly. They’re not going to nominate something that they don’t think is well written. So, it’s very meaningful. The World Fantasy Award, which I won, was hugely meaningful because I knew that…it’s a juried award, and these jurors are chosen carefully, and they’re like experts in their field, they’ve read a lot. They read–I don’t know how many books in order to come up with the shortlist and then to decide. So, it’s incredibly important. It’s a huge honor to get nominated for any of those major awards and to win an award like that.
At the same time, it doesn’t change your day-to-day life or routine. Like, you have this burst of achievement and joy and people are congratulating you, and it feels amazing for a short while, and then it’s, you know, it’s back to work. You know, you’ve still got a sit down, your life doesn’t change overnight or anything like that. It’s not like, you know, you’ve won the lottery in publishing and now from now on, you know, you’re not going to get rejected anymore like you. It’s not a magic sales ticket. It’s not like, you know, the next day suddenly you’re, you know, raking in dough. You get the validation and you enjoy it and you bask in that achievement and then you sit right back down in your chair, and you’re still facing the blank screen the next day.
And, of course, with a lot of these things, you get recognized for something that to you is now way in the past and you’re struggling with something brand new.
It’s like, you know, when get your book, and you…people say, “Isn’t it exciting to get your book?” Well, it is, but I have no desire to read it because it’s in the past, right? I’m working on something new.
Yeah. I remember actually feeling quite stressed after won the World Fantasy Award. I was smack dab in the middle of writing the second book. And the amount of…after the, you know, the excitement wore off, there was the pressure of, “Oh, great. Like, how am I going to write a sequel to live up to the first book?” Because now there’s expectations. So…and I feel the same way.
The same thing happens with book launches. Book launches are very funny because, you know, you’re launching a thing that you worked on so long ago. And you’re, you know, talking to interviewers and you’re doing bookstore events and you’re talking about this thing that you wrote and you’re acting happy and excited. You are happy and excited, but, you know, in the back of your mind, you’re stressing about whatever it is you’re working on right now. You know, “I still can’t figure out this plot point.” So it’s funny. Your brain is always kind of broken up based on the projects that are going on.
Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so this is where I asked the big philosophical questions. Well, one really, Which is simply…well, it’s kind of a three-parter. Why do you write, why do you think anybody writes, and in particular, why do you and I and other people write science fiction and fantasy?
So, I write because I love stories. And I think that stories are the truest form of human communication. I think everything that we do to relate to each other revolves around stories. Have you sat down with a bunch of friends that you haven’t seen for a few years or weeks? You immediately start telling stories, saying, “Oh, how’s it going?” And someone says like, “Oh, well, you know, last month I went here and this and that.” And they’ll, you know, they start telling a story.
I think that the stories are how we share ourselves with others. And everything that I write, I feel like I’m sharing something about myself with the world. And ideally. I’m sending that out into the world so that other people who read it will find something in those words that connects with them, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, like I feel like I relate and I understand and I see myself in that, too.” So, you know, there’s something personal about writing that…I think writers feel very drawn to kind of put their own truth out there. And, you know, when you see things in the world and, you know, you have personal experiences, you know, you can…part of, for me, the way to process them and to talk about them is to tell a story.
And when it comes to, you know, why science fiction and fantasy in particular? I think it’s a way to really stretch the imaginative boundaries of our minds, but then use that to tell fundamental truth or to reflect the human experience. So, if I’m going to tell a story about war, I could write about a specific war in our real history, but I can say something more, both broader and kind of more underlying about war itself in general, by putting it in a fantasy world or a science fiction world where, you know, there’s two alien races or, you know, it’s humans against cyborgs or whatever, and tell a story about war that way. And then I’m not bringing the real-life baggage of a specific event in history from our world into the conversation. Then it’s just a story about the truth of war and how it affects those characters and those characters are a stand in for, you know, any number of humans or people in our world.
So, I think that science fiction/fantasy really builds empathy in a way because, can you make a reader relate to a human who’s living 300 years in the future or an alien or a magical being or a robot? If you can, then you’re asking them to empathize with someone who’s very different than them. And that’s something that we can all use more of in the world.
I was going to say, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and so I’ll ask you, as I’ve asked others, do you hope in some way that through your fiction you are…shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping individuals and changing them in some way when they read your stories?
I certainly hope so. And I think that, you know, that is really probably the most validating thing about being an author, is when you hear from a reader who has really connected with your work and for whom your book means a lot. We all have those books in our lives where, you know, you feel like you read this book and it really shapedd, you know, our view on something, fiction or, you know, some issue or what have you. And having those moments…I mean, I’ve I’ve been honestly amazed and thrilled by how much international enthusiasm the Green Bones Saga has gotten. You know, I’ve had readers from the Philippines and New Zealand and Britain, like, people all over the world, who’ve said that they really love the fact that, you know, it’s a different take on fantasy, that it’s not fantasy that is set in some version of medieval northern Europe, that they are seeing fantasy worlds that that aren’t sort of the traditional mold of fantasy and that that meant a lot to them. That has been really, really awesome. And, you know, I think the fantasy genre as a whole is seeing a lot of that, just a broadening of, like, what sort of voices and stories are being told in fantasy. And I am really glad I get to be a part of that.
And what are you working on now?
Well, my answer is gonna be the same for the next year or so. And that is the third book of the Green Bones saga.
Does it have a title?
Yeah, there is, and I can’t announce it yet. Maybe by the time this podcast goes live, it will be public (It is, as you can see from the cover art at left – Ed.), but it does have a title. Orbit will be announcing it soon. And that will be my monster project for a while, because capping this trilogy is going to be no mean feat. And then I’ve got some other projects in the works that…well, I won’t speak of yet, but stay tuned.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me on my Web site, which is fondalee.com. I am on Twitter @FondaaJLee, and occasionally on Facebook. But yeah, people can certainly find me on the interweb.
I’m just curious, why is there a J in the Twitter handle and not on your website?
Only because the Twitter handle was taken by some sort of egg.
That’s so annoying.
Yeah. The reason this is called…well, it wasn’t a Twitter problem, but it was a domain name problem. This podcast is called The Worldshapers because Worldshapers was just being held by somebody who said, “Oh, well, we’ll sell it to you for $2,000 or $5,000, whatever it was. I said, “You know, I don’t think I need to spend that money on that.”
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.
I did! Thank you, Ed. And I will be sure to signal boost once it goes live. And good luck with the rest of your interviews you have lined up. Sounds like you’ve got quite a lineup the rest of this summer and year.
Yeah, it’s going really well. So, I hope to keep doing it for a long time. Anyway…