Interview with Tara Harper

Q: For our readers who haven’t heard of yourbooks, how would you describe them, and which would you recommend first?

The Wolfwalker books are usually considered to be on-planet, lost-colony, SF adventure. The Cat books — or Risthmus series or CatScratch series — are “harder” SF, on-planet thrillers which are sometimes classified as SF-mysteries. (For example, the Library of Congress classifies the CatScratch books as both SF and as mysteries.) The stand-alone novel, Lightwing, is lighter, somewhat humorous, space-and-aliens SF about the development of an FTL drive. All of my SF novels are set in the same universe.

Which novel to start with? Depends on the reader. If you like SF-adventure with lots of action, start with Wolfwalker. If you like humorous SF set in space, try Lightwing.   If you prefer meatier stories, try the CatScratch series.

 

Q: The technical aspects of your books are incredible. How do you research these?

Research is one of the fun halves of writing (there are always too many halves in my life). I subscribe to a dozen science journals and periodicals — keeping up with them is a daily task. I also keep a morgue (for articles, not dead bodies!) on everything from marine science and virology to condensed-matter physics and nanotech. The morgue is now seven 4-drawer filing cabinets large shows no sign of halting. My husband is starting to look for insurance policies that cover office implosions.) I also have an extensive private technical library, of course.

On a more personal level, I’m always picking the brains of the people I meet. Some of the most interesting folks I’ve met recently include a man who grew up in England building battleships during WWII (amidst the bombings, of course), a renowned parasitologist (shelves and shelves of fascinating samples), a US ambassador to the UN who served during the Cold War, several forensic anthropologists who help solve homicides, and a pair of falconers who were kind enough to take me hunting. I’ve interviewed undercover agents, toxicologists, lightning experts, war heroes, nuclear physicists, federal lobbyists, blue-water sailors, a 1932 gold-medalist who received his medal in person from Hitler, pilots of every sort…

As for more active research, I’ve worked for R&D high-tech and medical/genetics companies for 20 years, and that’s great fodder for the idea mill. Over the years, I’ve also been lucky enough to trade work in various fields. This has allowed me to do wild-animal rehabilitation with raptors and bats, spend time with big cats and big-cat handlers (cougars, snow leopards, etc.), work for two years on an extensive herpetology project (envenomation, sensory biology, etc), and learn to use my body language to communicate appropriately with nonhuman primates. (I was relieved at my success in that particular endeavor, since it meant that I wasn’t bombarded by urine and feces during interactions.) A couple years ago, I spent some time at a neuroscience lab learning to clone human DNA. This past year and a half, I’ve been training in forensics. I attended homicide school this spring, then spent five weeks this summer at a biosci DNA lab in Huntsville. Essentially, the breadth and insight I gain from these experiences are invaluable to me as a writer.

Something else that has been extremely helpful to me as a writer is the amount of time I’ve spent with street cops and detectives. These situations force me to interact with people I would not normally encounter, see things I would not normally see. Also, watching cases become resolved gives me real-time, condensed, concrete examples of how stories unfold — it’s like going back to school for a brush-up course in plotlines, pacing and characterization.

I have always had varied interests in the sciences. Since I became self-employed, I have more flexibility to pursue those aspects — such as research — that I love. The amount of research might seem excessive to some, but that research makes the writing much more interesting to me and keeps my mind alive.

I seem to always need something new to think about, some new context, a new image or theme. Without that, I start chafing at what I see, at old thoughts. So, storytelling to me is about finding the insight — reworking that (through rewriting) till it’s right. The research helps me find the thought or image which becomes most important. My stories are the foil, the context through which I explore that theme.

 

Q: What in your life do you credit as the source of your creativity and gift of writing?

At a guess, I’d say that what people think of as my creativity probably comes from my nightmares. I have extremely lucid nightmares every night. Always have — even as an infant, according to my parents. On a good night, I’ll have four or five complex, detailed nightmares. On a bad night, I’ll have only one, but I’ll probably have to live through that nasty a hundred times or so. The images in those nightmares stay with me for years, if not all my life.

I started learning dream-control techniques when I was ten (my mother grew tired of dealing with the sleep-walking and nightmaring). Now, controlling my dreams helps me focus on a particular image, piece of dialog, phrase or event, even while I survive (or die in) the nightmare. The dream-control techniques allow me to capture a piece of my mind and later put that essence on paper.

All my stories have been written from my dreams. Of course, the stories change in the telling — dreams are a different medium than the written word. Still, the essence of the nightmare — whatever made that image or theme so mesmerizing — that is the core of the writing and what remains in some form in the final, written book, even if it ends up as merely a phrase.

Actually, I have to compose the music for each book before I can write the story in words. I think this is because the music give me the essence of that theme — the first concrete expression of the dream, nightmare, or idea. And, music is also a storyline, just laid out in a different format. Complex characters, startling or soothing ideas, shocking themes, profoundly simple tones — they are all there. As far back as I can remember, music was a basic structure in my life. My mother sang, so I sang. My mother played piano, so I learned piano. I went on to violin, guitar, voice, and composition. It’s still a primary language for me, so it would be unusual if it didn’t affect my stories in the form of ideas and lines.

As for a ‘talent’ in writing, that probably stems simply from reading a lot, living a lot, and growing up with storytellers.

My brother, when he was 4, taught me to read (I was 3). My parents tell us that we would sit, side by side for hours, simply reading. As a child, I read everything in the house — my father’s war books and thrillers, my mother’s wildlife and travel adventures, the classics, the encyclopedias, the Bibles, comic books. Reading so extensively helped give me an ingrained sense of word structure, characters, patterns, the mystery of each story, and the need to get to the ending.

I also grew up hearing storytellers like Chief Lelooska (Northwest). Those stories, heard every year in the dark lodge, with the fire flaring and the wooden masks clacking — those had a significant impact on me. They extended the idea of life as a story — a concept that my parents gave me when they told me about their own lives and our family through the generations. My neighbors were also closing in on the century mark, and were some of the original settlers in our part of Oregon. They also told me fascinating stories. Everywhere I went, people were stringing together their thoughts and lives and handing me the threads.

To help with all that, I have led a fairly active life, so my own experiences lend themselves to storytelling. Wild-animal encounters, tidal waves, a decent earthquake, swarmings, a tsunami, far too many near-drownings, various wrecks and injuries, cliffs coming apart while I’m climbing… These things make it easy to imagine what my characters could encounter on a strange world. Yes, the experiences usually include some frightening (okay, terrifying, horrifying or macabre) aspect, but they make great background for stories.

So, the essence of my creativity is probably my nightmares, but the background for my writing is just my life. Essentially, I hear music and think in stories; I hear or live stories and think in music. It’s not a question of where I got a ‘gift’ for storytelling. I think it’s more a question of how, surrounded by all those threads of history and theme, I could possibly escape being a writer.

 

Q: Symbolism is heavily embedded in the Risthmus Series. Do you also see symbolism as an important part of your other books?

Yes, but I hope my readers don’t — or at least don’t see it so overtly. The symbolism is for myself. People who know me well are likely to identify the elements — a particular dialog, the way something is said, an event that represents part of my life.

Most readers do not care about the symbolism — they want the escape or adventure, plain and simple. I understand that. But the story is a representation of my ideas, thoughts, and conflicts in written form. To me, the symbolism is the story. I couldn’t write without it.

In some stories, the symbolism cannot be hidden, so you get a book  like Cat Scratch Fever. In some stories, it’s an underpinning — much less visible. The symbolism in each story, like some of the dedications, is personal. I don’t usually explain either in more specific terms.

 

Q: Can you share with us some ideas for future books? Will you continue the Wolf series? What about the Cat series? Any new ideas?

I‘ve just turned in the fifth Wolfwalker novel, which is the end of the initial Dion-and-Aranur Wolfwalker series. (Grayheart is the sixth novel, not the fourth, as it was written and so published out of order.) I have also started a new Wolfwalker series about Dion’s daughter, Noriana. There are two more books planned in the CatScratch or Risthmus, series, one of which I’ve already started. I have also finished a fantasy novel — a world myth — which I’m reworking into two novels. In the meantime, I’ve started a couple dozen stand-alone books of various SF premises.

Specific ideas for future books? No, can’t really share that. Or rather, sure, I could tell you the ideas now, but the concepts won’t come out that way in the final books. By the time I’m done with a story, the image or premise that began the book may end up as a secondary or symbolic thread — one that readers might not even notice. The concept remains the impetus for writing and will be the meaning of the story to me. But that concept is also something that may not survive overtly into the final, printed novel.

That, and out of context, the story ideas sound, well, idiotic. For example: woman crosses desert with icky things in it to save secret technology so that humanity has a choice of future a hundred years down the road. Or, telepathic cats try to escape their planet using an alien race as ‘hosts.’ Ack! Even the working titles are silly. How about: Jakson Keang and the Search for the Space Sponges? –Don’t let my editor see that one. Shelly might begin to think that Turtlewalker isn’t really a spoof.

No, I’d rather just finish the books and let you get the ideas from them.

 

Q: When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Doing, I suppose.

I’ve always been active. I did a lot of the usual sports: volleyball, waterpolo, track and field, shooting, fencing, triathalon. I was a rock climber, and yes, I am terrified of heights. I was raised with horses, rabbits, chickens — all the usual animals. After college, I continued to raise herbs, chickens and rabbits for years. I also ended up chasing my bunny barn around the hill one night when a violent winter storm blew the whole thing away, rolling and crashing end over end till it fetched up against the west fenceline. I loved scuba (am limited to skin/surface dives now), was a martial arts instructor for a dozen years or so, did a lot of competition. I’ve always hiked, canoed, kayaked, sailed — those sorts of outdoorsy things. Basically, the more things have to do with water or rocks, the happier I am.

Nonathletics? I hate sewing, but I do it because I love the clothes. I enjoy costuming, but it usually takes me over a year to complete something — the costumes are simply too expensive and too complex for a short-term gig. Musically, I’m still focused on violin and piano, but I’ve been getting more into voice and blues guitar. I sculpt in stone–I love the feel of it under my fingers. I paint in oils but hate the fumes; I read, of course. I enjoy cooking, but as my husband firmly reminds me, I am not allowed to cook while writing–it’s too easy for my five minutes to become five hours, and for that once-simmering sauce to end up as a volcanic, ochre sludge. (I ruin more pans that way…)

These days, I’m much less active than I used to be. After all the injuries and accidents, there isn’t much left of the body. (Yes, I really was  dragged around by the top 50-foot double-trunk section of a 120-foot tree. And yes, I did nearly lose my leg to a sea lion with a broken tusk.) Seems as if every other joint, tendon or bone has been broken, torn off, hyperextended, or inflamed. Still, life remains interesting (I’m almost certain I’ve been cursed by the Chinese), and that’s all I can really hope for.

 

Q: What, if anything, has driven you to write?

I don’t know.  It’s like breathing–part of life.  It’s always been there, so I don’t know that I can say anything drove me to it. Instead, it’s simply as much a part of me as my heart is part of my chest.  I can’t separate it; I can only acknowledge it.  (That sounds far too artsy-fartsy.)  Simple answer:  I write because I write.

 

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

Oooh, this is a rant:  Opportunity, efficiency, irritation and hell.

As a professional, I find surfing the web to be one of the least efficient methods for finding research and generating ideas.  It’s more fun than a library, but it also wastes more time and costs more money (time is definitely money).  It is hardly a business place. Instead, it is a circus, an arena of salesmen with cybersuckers for hands, a cacophony of whiners and hypocrits who scream without logic or fact.  It is incendiary speech and lies without accountability, a thousand alligator eyes watching and logging your movements, and waiting for the marketing kill.  And then there are the net/web cancers that kill half of any time you spend: spammers, junk mailers, banner advertisers, and the evil ones who send ‘humor’ to everyone they know…

Entering the internet is like going to a new-age meat market for your brain, being stripped at the door, and then being expected to perform for free. nYou might find a decent person to talk with or a solid, info-dense site, but you’ll probably wade through a thousand barflies to do it, and you’ll never know who was looking up your dress while you were there.

People are so enamored with the online world, but I think the internet is in a horrible, eighth-grade stage of adolescence.  Too many sites, posts and e-mails are passing gas, throwing spit wads, and distracting the class from being able to hear the teacher.  Another third of the intenet spoon-feeds you information, not at your pace, but at an advertiser’s pace, and only if you jump through the site/ad/frame hoops like a good dog.  Half of the rest lock you into their incestuous ring of connected sites with no escape — as if anyone would ever consider returning to such a site once he realizes the back command has been disabled — that’s like driving into a parking garage that has no exit.  I recall a story in Rudy Rucker’s (ed.) Mathenauts about a man trying to drive for three years into a Spanish city that had no entrance ramps off the highways because of extreme traffic-control measures…

Take searching for or buying books online.  That’s like going to a bookstore where only eight titles are displayed at any one time.  If you want to look at more covers, you have to walk twenty feet over to a new bookcase to see the next eight spines (not the full jacket, and you certainly won’t be able to flip through the pages) — which you can do only after you shove through the ten-foot, polyvinyl ad banner hung between the cases.  Sure, you can shave a few dollars off the cover price of a book, but you add that cost back in shipping, and you’ll spend two hours doing it.  My time and my hands are worth more.  Basically, I find the internet as irritating as having to stop every fifty feet on an eighty-mile drive.

Even the business models are mostly anti-user. Writers’ organizations are now doing what other, computer-industry giants (no names mentioned, of course) have been doing:  forcing the burden of business on the consumer, and charging for that burden.  For example, if I want to know what’s going on in one of my writers’ organizations, I am apparently no longer going to be able to read these summaries at my leisure in the monthly or quarterly bulletin.  Instead of spending ten minutes to scan a summarized hardcopy, I’m now told I have to waste hours online selecting and scrolling and downloading and displaying wordy and wandering conversations and chats to cull the summary myself.  That’s time I would rather spend writing.  And, instead of the professional organization summarizing the online community in one convenient place (the bulletin, which is what I figure my dues helped fund), every reader now has to reinvent that wheel himself.  It forces me to choose between doing my job (writing) and performing the editor’s or organization’s job myself.

And the privacy issues–gawd!  Privacy should be the default, not the exception.  As a writer, I may need information on any topic, including sensitive subjects such as biochemical warfare, combustibles, lock-picking, murder and mutagenics.  Yet my user profile is already connected to my email and physical addresses (some of the most interesting spam and junk mail prove it), meaning that I can be easily traced by my interests, and possibly even considered dangerous.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling to think that industry is selling me around (without paying me royalties for my intellectual property/self, of course).  And, it’s infuriating that they are allowed to use spyware, web bugs, download tracers, and profile databases with wanton disregard for individual rights.  Basically, I see the net at a stage in which the law needs to catch up to current business practices, and where industry should be as restricted as the police in investigating a user and infringing on his privacy.

Policing the net for privacy, piracy and copyright violation is a global problem, but we can’t even police the international Berne agreement, so what do we think to do in the face of newer technology that makes piracy even easier?  This is a criminal’s hayday — it’s the wild west all over again, and everyone has a gun.

I think the obvious impacts of the internet on the business side of writing will be the fallout from e-books (such as Stephen King’s wonderful model projects), self-publishing online, and the copyright/piracy wars.  Right now, the only protection one really has is through exclusion, by keeping the work off the net.  I don’t see that as a good business model, but I also don’t yet see how protection will be available when, 1) the current infrastructure doesn’t lend itself to security or protection, and, 2) there is now a generation of users who seem to feel that they don’t owe the artist anything for taking his work without permission.  These netizens seem to feel that we (authors, musicians, etc.) owe them – that if something exists, it must be free simply because they want it.  This is an arrogance of self, an ego-centric view of the value of things, and certainly a lack of true community. In community, people don’t just take from each other, they also give back — or they are parasites.

Without an exchange of value for value, online books might as well be redefined as volunteer work.  Volunteer work is fine and good; I do a lot of it myself.  But it doesn’t pay the bills.  It is volunteer work for an organization which addresses the needs of those unable to care for themselves at the moment.  It’s not volunteer work for someone who can work to support himself.  If you’re not truly needy or destitute, you ought to be earning your way, paying for what you take.  Yet many of today’s netizens feel justified in taking whatever they see.  Frankly, I figure the piracy would drop off dramatically if writers were allowed to go into each netizen’s home and take what they wanted in fair trade for the stolen stories (or music).  Attitudes change dramatically when it’s your ox being gored.

Either we establish an enforcing body — that Big Brother watchdog we seem to fear so much — or netizens start acting responsibly.  Personally, I prefer the honor system.  But, I disagree with Stephen King’s model that voluntary honesty of 75% is enough.  In no other industry would 25% thievery be considered acceptable.  No bookstore would allow one out of every four shelves of books to walk out of a physical store without payment.  No restaurant would allow a quarter of its diners to leave without paying.  The internet may look like a candy store, but you still have to pay for the Snickers®.

What this means to me as a writer is that, right now, putting a book online or in an e-book today is like putting it in the public domain.  Meaning that e-books are an opportunity that cannot yet be reasonably exploited.  Without security, accountability, financial traceability, and copyright enforcement, thereis no opportunity.  Instead, this ‘opportunity’ is a con-man saying, “Have I got a deal for you. You give me your book, and I’ll give you…nothing! Ha, gotcha!”  Yes, an aspiring writer may want to put a book into what is essentially public domain because he’s desperate for the attention, and he’s not expecting to get paid for it anyway.  A professional writer has to look at this very carefully.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in putting story-related information online.  There are many existing models and examples of peripheral info (such as descriptions of whatever happened to X character), sample chapters, quotes, maps, and short stories online.  This type of internet use gives existing readers a little more detail about a world to which they may want more exposure.  Using the internet in this way can be valuable to a writer who is trying to reestablish his career, generate interest in a new project, or simply offer an existing readership some goodies.

Excepting the abuse and often overwhelming adolescence of the internet, the net offers major benefits to me as a writer.  I can search and read medical and science abstracts from home.  I can surf for what I call “branch ideas” — ideas I get while following a tree structure of some technical detail to unknown places.  I can get research contacts from newsgroups and web sites — I often need these “pocket physicists” to help me develop technical details for stories.  Of course, I still have to verify a contact outside the net before using it, but the net allows me to broadened my tech-contact base significantly.

Another benefit is that I can follow (newsgroups, newssites, etc.) problems like the one that Buckman Labs had with paper recyling: why the peroxide was breaking down before it removed all the ink from recycled paper.  Their international newsgroup came back in something like two days with the identity of the obscure  and rather rare bacteria that was causing the problem, as well as a solution.  For writers, these types of discussions offer insight into process, not just fact; and although the fact may be the punchline, it’s process, not fact that makes a story.  (Of course, you also learn the oddest things about polymers, skin, and biofilms…)

Then there are the endless opportunities for self-promotion.  Interviews, reviews, excerpts, newsgroup activity — these don’t cost an author anything but time.  And, if you do them well enough, you might build, over the years, a reputation as an interesting person — something that may help you with actual sales of your work.  It also seems to be easier to get online promotion than print or media promotion — a factor that may be critical to a new or aspiring author.

One of the greatest benefits to me is having a web site.  When the e-mail from readers and aspiring writers began to require two full 10-hour days a month, it was time to set up a site.  That was an extensive project.  The site now provides advice, answers and workshop articles on everything from query letters to writing, science notes on virology and bacteriology, etc.  Now, I don’t have to constantly write the same letters over and over about my books, agents, getting published…  Now, I spend (still!) the days on reader mail that has more interesting questions.  And, the site passes along to aspiring writers some of the information I wish had been available to me when I was trying to get started.

Does the internet change the writing itself?  I don’t think so.  Writing has been and will be storytelling.  The ways we authors reach readers, research our stories, become independent businessmen, and support ourselves while writing–those may be significantly different.

At the bottom line, the internet is the new world, and it’s still open for almost anything.  It definitely requires authors to be more business savvy, since the burden of doing business falls increasingly on the author’s shoulders.  It is decentralization at an extreme swing.  The traditional print publisher used to be central for contracts, editors, cover art, publishing, warehousing, and publicity.  Now many of those tasks are being farmed out to — and almost required of — the electronic writer.

At some point, the pendulum will swing back.  Yet more middle men will spring up to charge the writer individually for the online tasks of presentation, ratings and reviews, and web-site promotion.  Or, writers, agents and editors will reform their business models based on the requirements of the newer technologies.

Until then, the internet is a sea of half-formed policies that can’t be policed, copyright violations, outright piracy, interesting risks, and opportunities waiting to be grasped.  I dove in a long time ago.  Water’s not warm yet, but I keep hoping.

Visit Tara K. Harper at http://www.teleport.com/~until/tkh.htm

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