Interview with Suzy Mckee Charnas

INTRO: Suzy McKee Charnas is the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of severalscience fiction and fantasy novels, including The Vampire Tapestry.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what you are currently working on?

A: Two projects — well, three actually. The first is a non-fiction book aboutmy Dad, a failed artist and brilliant but paranoid intellect, who left whenI was eight and then lived the last 20 years of his life with my husband andme out here in New Mexico. The second is a novel about paranormal contactwith the cetaceans exploring their spiritual and social nature. The third isgetting through the NY production of my play, “Vampire Dreams,” in Decemberwith, I hope, a resulting publication of the script so that other productionscan happen in the future.
     The fourth, now that I think of it, is getting my older books back inprint. One of them, a mainstream modern novel with supernatural overtones(DOROTHEA DREAMS), is set to be reissued through the Authors Guild back-in-print program that they have just set up with a print-on-demand publishingcompany. I am looking around for the right outfit to get a series of threeYA fantasy novels back into print too, maybe in e-book format rather thanpublished-on-demand hard copy.

Q: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

A: I knew this very, very early, and the sign of it that I remember is that Iused to swipe the blank booklets called “dummies” that my illustrator fatherused to layout pictures for children’s books and I’d write in stories andI’d fill them with drawings and text of my own. They were, at that time,Westerns modeled after the comic books I read — Lash LaRue, Red Rider, thatkind of thing.

Q: What did you like to read when you were a child?

A: We had a lot of the classics around in hardback, illustrated edtions, and Iread those: Stevenson, Verne, Poe, Carrol, and the like. I also devouredbooks in series like Bomba the Jungle Boy, Tarzan, Nancy Drew, the Lone Rang-er, and all of the great “dog” books — BOB, SON OF BATTLE; WHITE FANG;GREYFRIARS’ BOBBIE; LASSIE COME HOME — and as many horse books as I couldget my hands on — the Black Stallion series and others, as well as naturebooks by Ernest Thompson Seton and books about exploration and adventure (theonly title I recall now is THE ADVENTURERS’ CLUB). I spent a *lot* of timein the local branch of the New York Public Library, and took home armloads ofbooks which I read three and four at a time.
     I also hung out at the corner store, sipping ice cream sodas andfeverishly skimming the science fiction monthlies’ fiction, as I couldn’tafford to buy the issues. My soda money was apparently considered reason-able rent for them by the shopowner, as I was seldom bothered about readingat the racks.
     And I read *lots* of EC comics, all the way from “Tales From theCrypt” to “Two-Fisted Action Tales,” which means that according to thehysterical censors of the time, I should become a raving psychopath long-since. But maybe I’m not the best judge of that . . .

Q: What’s your favourite genre as a writer?

A: Anything with fantastic, supernatural elements — which includes much SF,fantasy, and some mainstream and thriller literature as well. As a reader,I like to be shown something in fiction that I don’t ordinarily see in mydaily world, something mysterious, grand, glorious, or terrifying; that’salso what I try to provide in my own work.
     As a reader, I favor mysteries and thrillers (but no serial killerstories — what a grotesque, artificial sub-genre this has come to be!People of the future will study it as a puzzling aberraion of our time, Iam sure).

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of writing the story?

A: Choosing what stays in and what gets cut. I over-write at first, to makesure that I’ve explored every aspect of my concept and not overlooked anycrucial or valuable elements; and then I have to go back and slice out allthe parts that turn out to be extraneous in the light of the final centralemphasis and meaning of the story.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A: Speaking as an American, familiar only with the business of writing fictionhere: if there’s *anything* else you like doing that you can get paid for,choose that instead. Everyone wants to write, but fewer and fewer peoplewant to be readers as we grow more and more oriented toward quick visualmessages fit for short attention spans in an increasingly frantic storm ofimages and sound-bytes. If you think you can be happy diving ever deeperin search of an ever lower common denominator you may flourish in thisenvironment, but how you can keep from suffocating on sheer boredom downthere I can’t imagine.
     So, you may ask, how have I survived then? Well, truth to tell, Ihaven’t. That is, I continue to write the highest quality fiction I can,but I have never made a living on it; my husband, a lawyer, has enthusias-tically supported my writing habit for thirty years. If a time comes whenthere simply are not enough readers out there willing to buy high qualitywork to make publishing my books sufficiently profitable for the accountantswho have taken over publishing, I will no longer be able to find a publisher(this has already happened to a number of writers who have had to resort tofalse names and the pretense of being first-time authors to get new workinto print because the “track record” on work under their own names did notthrow off vast quantities of profit).
     Of course this situation is changing as print-on-demand and e-bookscome into being, making it possible for work appealing to fewer readers tosurvive by finding its audience one by one on-line, as it were. But for thetime being the days of making your fortune as a writer of high-quality fic-tion are apparently as good as done, unless a book is struck by the weirdlightning of Fate (eg THE NAME OF THE ROSE or LIVES OF THE MONSTER DOGS).
     You spend a huge amount of time and energy just trying to keep upwith what you need to know to survive and protect your interests as thebascially despised and exploited originator of story (an attitude caught,like lice, from Hollywood where the Big Bucks are). A story-maker in thisenvironment is just like a farmer or fisherman, a producer of the rawmaterial, on the repackaging and resale of which various “developers” (filmmakers, chain bookstores, and mega-corporations that have bought up publish-ing) make huge profits for themselves, while keeping the producer poor.
     (Incidentally, I do not include editors among the writers’ enemies;they are in the unenviable position of plantation overseers who are them-selves paid slave wages. They enter the business because they love booksbut are not themselves writers — well, you would have to do the work outof love, or you couldn’t accept those entry-level salaries! — and then findthemselves trying to work for books while actually serving the purposes ofcorporate Boards who couldn’t care less.)
     In practical terms: if you get something published, IMMEDIATELY jointhe nearest and best professional writers’ organization that you can find.This will be your source of warnings against various predators (from the IRSto your publisher to, yes, your agent) and of methods of self-defense.
     And get plenty of exercise and exposure to the other arts; you needto keep the body vigorous and the soul nourished by the visions of others.
     Now, aren’t you glad you asked?

Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an author?

A: That I can be found, usually, by fans of my work, by people with work pro-posals (the latest is about working with Bernard Taylor on revamping, as itwere, his musical NOSFERATU), by researchers, and by colleagues. I’m on anumber of mailing lists, some of which generate interesting group-projectsthat I would hate to be left out of, and of course news travels very fastelectronically. The range of publicity outlets actually within my reach hasbeen enormously expanded — it’s a lot easier to announce, say, the three-week run of a play of mine in New York in December via the internet than tohire a publicist or make a million phone calls on my own. Feedback on mywork is also greatly enhanced, since I can find reviews by readers (ratherthan professional reviewers) on various sites.
     The SF community, the core community of professionals and readersthat is, is knitted very closely together by the internet these days, and ofcourse we all hope that more and more people will continue to stumble onvarious electronic SF nexi on the net and become part of the pattern.
     When I have a bit of time on my hands, I hop onto the usenet and chatwith people who are not, for the most part, members of the SF community, fora refresher course in what’s going on out there among the “civilians.” Icheck in at net magazines like Salon now and then to see what people aretalking about.
     But the newsgroups are a favorite hangout (and time-sink). I lovethe idea that I can “speak” to adolescent net users, for example, and havemy words given the same weight as those of another adolescent, while inperson this simply could not happen; and vice versa. What a great tool foractually *listening* to one another, bypassing barriers of age, class, race,and even language that normally box us away from each other!
     And of course much of my work is now being bought and sold via theinternet, and I hope to get some work into “reprint” through this means.
     I do have to say that I have not found the internet to be a betterresearch tool than a library of print books. Finding the right informationtakes forever, whereas with books at hand you just flip through the pages –no “loading” time — and find what you want (or not). I only go after prettycrude information on the net — the weather today in Milan, for example, notthe details of, say, life in a Sherpa village.
     It probably depends on what you’re looking for — if I were tryingto research phenomena of “hard” science I would probably favor the net, butreading in anthroplogy, sociology, and the like — social background andcustom, which is a major interest — is still more comfortable and efficienton paper, for me.

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