Interview with C. J. Cherryh

Q: Where do you get the inspiration for your settings andcharacters?

A: I just go to that same daydream-spot inside my head that I’mpretty sure all of us have. I don’t know if people who don’twrite for a living actually meet strangers there, but I do, on aregular basis, and I absolutely insist they arrive with a goodproblem and tell me about it. There are particularly good spotsfor productive encounters: there’s a beach I imagine and if I sitlong enough and stare down the length of it, I’m sure someonewill come walking down it, and most of them are interesting whenthey arrive. Sometimes I don’t write all I meet, but most of theones I meet do have interesting backgrounds. And sometimes I findI’m not on that beach at all, but in some space station corridoror in some castle hallway.

Once these strangers tell me a little about their worlds I canmake up the rest, out of smidges of geology, geography, history,archaeology, and snippets of whole cloth, and once I know theirhistory and their quirks, I can most often figure out the rest ofthe story.

Translation: thinking up new ideas and characters isn’t hard.Writing day and night for months…that’s hard.

Q: How did you go about writing your first books?

A: With a fat-lead pencil on cheap tablets, illustrated, no less.I was young. I learned to type as soon as possible, and thestories consequently got longer. By the time I was sixteen, I hadvolumes.

If you mean the first ones that sold, however, I wrote during thecopious spare time a schoolteacher has…with a sandwich forsupper, the plate beside the typewriter and in front of thetelly. My furniture lasted for much longer than it ought to: Ionly had to replace the typing chairs. I wrote every evening andsometimes in the mornings, every summer break, and every holiday.I wrote a trunkful, sent them in with inevitable high hopes, andhad them come back after six months with no editorialencouragement at all…often destroyed, so they had to beretyped, a two-month job in itself, in those pre-computer dayswhen even photocopies were a prohibitive 15 cents a page. Soeverything was hand-typed. With carbon. Every day I watched themails obsessively. Every rejection was desolation. But I couldalways see the faults, particularly when I had to retype one, soI’d improve it. Editors lost Hunter of Words three times. Ialways say that’s the book that turned me into a real writer,because I kept having to improve it, and I learned on every pass.

The current generation of writers that never retypes, becausethere’s always a computer file, might try re-entering an unsoldnovel or two and seeing if they can’t be bettered with a thoroughre-write. There’s a certain mental trap inherent in knowingyou’ve got a back-up, a certain laziness about really gettinginto the structure of a scene. You gain a tad of discipline whenyou confront a five inch stack of mostly ragged, coffee-stainedand thoroughly disrespected paper just salvaged from a box thatcame open in the mails, and saying, oh, well, I can improve itwith a retype.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?

A: I’m working under contract. The first of a new set ofForeigner books is just out, Precursor, and I’m working on thenext.

Q: Which genre do you enjoy most, Fantasy or Science Fiction?

A: I trained as an archaeologist, and my most intense scholarlyinterest is the evolution of technology and its effect oncivilization…which is to say I do both fantasy and sf withequal enthusiasm, but I tend to do them in alternation, to keepboth sets of skills current.

Q: What would be your recommendations to aspiring “young”authors?

A: I think I’ve given it, above. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Andbe curious about everything. Writing is a profession you canpractice while upside down and experiencing total blackout in acave. You just use the mental recorder instead of pen andpaper…or portable…and hope you find a use for the experience.

Q: How do you clear a writers “block”?

A: Take better care of the writer. Get some rest. Go take ashower, sit in a cave, walk on a beach, or lie on your stomachand watch some ants. I’ve never met a writer’s block, but I’vegotten myself too tired, too loaded with frivolous responsibilityto write. It always clears up when I remember what’s important.

I’ll tell you what someone once told me: if anything *can* keepyou from writing, it will. Identify those things that can, anddecide what’s important. For me, writing is more important than awhole array of things that could take up my time if I let them.

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

A: It means people get a chance to know when I’ve got a bookcoming out: it means that I can find various details I think Ineed, and immediately decide I don’t; it means I can keep intouch with friends between sf conventions; it means I can answermail quickly, in telegraphic format, and without increasinglyexpensive stamps. It means that if I’d been given that horrendoushigh school report on the Aisle of Rams at Karnak that taught mehow to research the absolutely unresearchable, I’d have looked itup inside an hour and not learned half as much. It means I didn’thave to go out shopping in the malls this week, and that variousgood and curious things will arrive at my door without much workon my part, while I write my next book.

In short, it means change and acceleration of change. It’s notthat the internet is good or bad in itself: the way I use it iswhat determines what it is for me…and I choose to use it todraw the world in and save myself time.

How do I meet this innovation? I have a webpage under my ownname: I started my career with a pencil and a manual typewriterand the moment it was clear I could get a site started, I wasdetermined to ride the technological wave and learn HTML. Which Iwas doing, with help, but updating my own page the hard way andoften very badly…until the irreverent young visitor to the sitewho messaged me a gosh-wow: “You do your own code? Byhand?”…which cued me I was already a dinosaur and way behind. Iimmediately got a shiny-new wizzywig HTML software that gives meproblems I still have to sort out by hand. So what I’d learned isstill useful. I know what I’m looking at, and the site stillruns…better than it did, thanks to some webfriends who helpedme out, people I might never have met without the internet. AndI’m getting better at this.

Change, change, and change: the one thing certain is that we havemore and more data to contemplate, and while I love fixing thewebpage…still, a writer’s job is to condense, codify, sift thetimestream for useful things, and turn an era of change into ahuman experience. What will the internet be? What’s a telephoneworth? What’s electricity? What did the transverse cog do forhumanity? A lot. But not enough to make any one of us perfect, orto change the motives of a human being. That’s what books areabout.

So, yes, I vote for the internet. Electronically, we’verediscovered the village, just when we’d become increasinglyisolate, and I do enjoy this strange planetary melting-pot. TheRenaissance was a time like this one…a time of absoluteexplosion of ideas and new concepts, of new contacts andglobalization of human experience. The Renaissance also, be itremembered, triggered the Inquisition, in benighted backlash.There’s hope and caution both in that era. I hope we can dobetter for our species on this pass.

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