Hello Elizabeth: thanks very much for joining us.
You’ve read SF/Fantasy since you were young, I believe. What do you think is the power of the genre? What attracts you now, still?
Traditional storytelling values: interesting characters doing interesting things in a plot that satisfies the itch for Story. Beyond that, science fiction can present intriguing “what if?” scenarios, and fantasy can present “how did we get here?” scenarios.
What were the first genre favourites?
Heinlein, Norton, Sturgeon, and after them the deluge…I read science fiction in mid-teens, before I started reading fantasy (other than mythology, which I’d read very early.) I was given an Oz book as a child but didn’t like it much; that and a few other fantasies for children turned me off fantasy for years.
Though you’ve written since you were little, at what point did you want to take it to a professional level. Have you always wanted to be “a writer”?
My early ambitions included test pilot, astronaut, world-class physicist, and (just to round things out) horse breeder, large animal vet, or wildlife biologist. In high school I did think briefly about being a “real writer” but my mother pointed out that at the rates then paid per word for SF in the magazines I’d have to write–and sell–an incredible amount per month. I went back to thinking of an academic career, first in science, and then later in history or archaeology, when my physics dreams crashed freshman year. Writing, I thought, would be a hobby, something on the side.
If anyone had said “Oh, your writing is brilliant–here’s money, let us publish you!” I might have been serious about it earlier, but my writing wasn’t that brilliant (something I recognized), and that’s not how publishing works. (Submit something? Are you kidding? That would have meant admitting that I considered myself the equal of people in print. Which I didn’t.)
If we hadn’t had to move 250 miles from my graduate school just as I was starting my research, I might now have a degree in what I do in my spare time–wildlife management. I loved field biology–still do. However, Stuff happened. In the long run, the kind of Stuff that’s provided me with many more experiences and thus more material to write from.
How did you become a full-time writer? Was it an easy path or one that took determination and , dare I say it, stubbornness?
Stubbornness. Definitely stubbornness. And desperation. We’d moved to a small town, my husband’s business was teetering on the brink, and there were no jobs I could afford the gas to drive to. However, the county paper needed a new stringer for the town. Their starting rate paid for gas to drive my column in (no internet in our area then) and extra typing paper and ribbons as I needed them. I realized that I could write something saleable and started looking for more markets–all nonfiction at first. Then tried fiction, very unsuccessfully for years. Covering the walls with rejection slips was not a cartoon, but reality. What I didn’t realize was that I’m a natural long-form writer, not a natural short-fiction writer. Once I let myself keep going on a story–The Deed of Paksenarrion began as a short story–everything fell into place.
How important is “getting the details right” to you? When does research stop becoming an obsession?
Very important. Mistakes throw readers out of stories–they throw me out–so I try not to make them. Research is the natural activity of someone with a very large bump of curiosity (What do you mean obsession? It’s a necessity, like breathing.)
Are you a writer that has to write? Every day?
Just about, yeah. One day away, not much problem. Two days…itchy. Three days…would write in spit on a hot sidewalk, if I couldn’t find pencil/pen/paper/computer.
What’s your writing pattern? Do you have one? You’re one of those annoying early-rise people, aren’t you?
First-draft writing–start it before breakfast–early anyway. On a good day (or when in crunch mode) keep going for hours, maybe with a break after lunch. If I get the day’s wordage done really early, then work on any writing-business stuff–revisions, copy edits, correspondence, etc. Main revision work usually starts late morning to afternoon, because my editing brain isn’t awake earlier.
When it’s going well, are you a writer that just has to keep going, even if it’s, say, a 12-hour stint?
I used to, but rarely indulge now, as my hands will be wrecked the next day if I write too much one day. It’s hard to stop, though, when it’s in full flow. Before we adopted our son, when I was writing the first Paks story, it was 14 hour days, much of the time. I’d write until my elbows locked up completely (on an old typewriter.)
In your experience, is a writer born or trained?
Both. There are innate neurological differences that affect just about all human abilities, including writing, but we’re a species that develops culturally as well. Born storytellers have a natural ability, but it’s like a talent for jumping high or singing on key or visualising molecules interacting with one another: it must be nurtured, trained, and practiced to reach a useful level. Writers need to be exposed to storytelling–both oral and written and then they need to write, write, write, and write.
You’ve already said in the Forums at SFFWorld that the writer who wrote about Paksenarrion in the 1980’s is a different one from the one writing Oath of Fealty. Did you always want to return? Why has now been the time to do so? What do you think you can do better now, with that life-experience behind you?
Yes, I always wanted to return. Early on, however, I did not have the uninterrupted time that this story-universe requires (because we’d adopted a child who turned out to be autistic) or the skills to work in shorter chunks at that depth.
Why now? Three reasons: our son is grown, not living in this house or needing constant attention, I reached the point where I felt I could immerse myself in Paks’s world again and write it the way I wanted to, and finally–I got a contract for it.
What I can do better now? Pretty much everything involved in writing these books…and it would be a shame if I couldn’t. I’ve learned something from every book I’ve written (and read) in between, so in terms of the craft of writing, I have a better toolkit with which to shape a story. Fewer wrong turns, fewer wasted pages. (Never none–that’s why I value good editors.) Another 25 years experience in the world has taught me more about people–both as characters in a book and as readers of books. Whether I’ve matured or not, I’ve certainly changed–and so I understand the viewpoint of older characters better than I did back then.
Strong female leads: there’s a clear template there in much of your work, from Paks to Haris to Ky Vatta, and one that many, I think, have emulated since. Conscious or subconscious? Is it just easier for you to write female fantasy leads?
When younger, I wrote mostly male leads because most of the books I enjoyed had male leads…however, none of those works reached publication. Even in the 1980s, when I first submittedSheepfarmer’s Daughter, the rejections from multiple publishers commented negatively about a woman writer tackling military topics and/or a woman soldier as the protagonist. This may have made me just a wee tad stubborn…though first post-Paks books of my own both had male protagonists (Surrender None and Liar’s Oath.) My then publisher wanted me to write military SF with a female protagonist (building on the success of the McCaffrey collaborations) so that’s how the Familias Regnant/ Serrano-Suiza books started. I actually enjoy writing both female and male characters (of my forty short pieces, twenty-four have a male protagonist) but every time some guy whines about my not writing enough stories about men (and it still happens occasionally) I find no reason to comply.
How do you find writing collaboratively with other authors? I did enjoy The Planet Pirates novel, Sassinach, co-written with Anne McCaffrey, for example…
Anne is the only person with whom I’ve written, and having the opportunity to work with her, early on, was a wonderful experience. I learned so much–both from trying to match her style, and from her comments. She’s an extraordinarily generous “host” to her “guest” writers.
In the same vein as working with Anne McCaffrey, have you thought about inviting a newish (or experienced) writer to join in one of your fiction worlds or help to create a new one?
No…much as I enjoyed working with Anne, I’m not yet ready to share my personal sandbox with anyone else, and I don’t think I’d be as good a host as she was for so many less-experienced writers.
Your battle scenes, in both your SF and your Fantasy, are often recognised as accurate and brilliantly written. There is an element of realism there in that you’ve had military training and practice fencing for a hobby. How much does experience help you when you’re writing, particularly in genres such as SF and Fantasy, where actual experience of such things can be hard to come by?
Experience helps immensely, and provides sensory input impossible to get from books and other sources. More experience is available than you might think, although the writer may need to make the most of brief snatches and be open to opportunities when they arrive (not always when convenient!) Go to museums and talk to the curators and docents, visit historical sites, attend demonstrations of everything from cheese-making to sheep-shearing. County and state fairs are good for this. Ask if you can try something that’s being shown…sometimes you can. Observe “re-creation” societies replaying famous battles (join one if you have the time and physical ability.) Visit ships on display and climb all over them–in fact, any machinery you can get to, get as close as allowed. Even fifteen minutes of hands-on gives you some sensory details a book can’t– feel of a plane smoothing wood, for instance, or the claustrophobic spaces inside the lower decks of an 18th century ship. For real skill, of course, you have to spend more time at it, but that brief experience will enliven what you read, and help you understand more when you interview those who actually did whatever it is.
And we haven’t mentioned Speed of Dark, which was a different tale for you to tell, not to mention a well deserved Award Winner. Was it a book that you’d always felt you’d wanted to write?
Actually, my first reaction to a suggestion from Michael’s pediatric neurologist that I should write about autism was revulsion–I was not going to exploit our son that way. Years later, when he was doing better than expected and I had devised some novel interventions, I thought of writing a nonfiction book for other parents. But about 1999 or 2000, this book began to surface, with a character who was much higher-functioning than Michael (thus making his decision less obvious.) It’s controversial in the autism community; many autists don’t like Lou’s choice and think I forced it–but I did not know, when I started the book, whether he would choose treatment or not (drove my then-editor up the wall.)
I’d like to put in a plug for the HBO movie Temple Grandin, out on DVD in April, which has a fascinating take on the life of this famous high-functioning autistic woman…she helped in the production and part of it was filmed only about 25 miles from here. (Capitol Land and Livestock provided the cattle and site for filming many of the livestock scenes.) I was lucky enough to attend a pre-release showing in Austin, and Grandin was there.
What is your proudest achievement as a writer?
That the books have touched lives in a way that made a difference. I can’t tell those stories in any detail without trespassing on others’ privacy, but some of them have been heart-rending. A school drop-out who, after reading Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, realized she wasn’t stupid–and went on to complete not only high-school equivalency but a college degree–while working full-time and keeping her own child from dropping out. A police officer who recognized, from The Speed of Dark, that a “wild” child was autistic, not on drugs or crazy, and intervened to find the family help. (That book has had an impact far larger than I could have imagined.)
You�ve got your hands in quite a few series, bouncing between the cousin sub genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Which is more fun to write? Is one of those genre hats easier to slip on than the other?
They’re equally fun, but in different ways, though in both Story itself is at the heart. The light short fantasy stories (the “Chicks in Chainmail” stories) were fun in the sense of sheer mischief–playing with the genre as well as the story, and going for the laugh. More serious fantasy is fun because I can deal with very deep, basic human drives and cultural issues. Hard science fiction is fun in the same way as science itself–it satisfies the pure-intellect side and still lets me work with human nature. Adventure stories (in any genre) satisfy the adventure-loving side, with additional writing fun from using the genre-specific elements.
When writing a second, or third (basically a non-first book in a series), how difficult is the balance between keeping the story inviting to new readers and not over-repeating things for the long time fans?
Very difficult–at least for me. My editors have been a big help with that. Hardest was deciding on the right amount of backstory to use in Oath of Fealty, because the existing fan base for the Paksenarrion books could easily have been bored by repetition of what they already knew, and the newcomers could easily have been left adrift (or overwhelmed and feeling that they had to read the earlier books first.) The first draft erred (a long way) on the side of inclusion; there were discussions on what should be where (appendix material or within the text) and how much could be left to the associated website.
How important is that writer/editor relationship? Did this importance lead you to follow your editor to a different publishing house?
Very important, though I’ve had good relationships with just about all my editors. It’s very difficult to work with an editor who makes it clear he or she doesn’t really like your work, or doesn’t trust your judgment–or whose editorial judgment the writer doesn’t trust. (Most of what I know about that comes from horror stories shared among writers.) Personally, I like to work with editors who like what I write but communicate clearly where it needs improvement.
But I didn’t follow Betsy Mitchell, my first editor, to Del Rey–my ending up there was the result of the book auction for The Speed of Dark. As it happened, I had three other editors at Del Rey (corporate turnover; I’ve been assured it wasn’t my fault!) before this project and my original editor came together for me…fortuitously, and to my great delight. I liked my other editors, but for this particular project her past experience with it has been invaluable.
You’ve got a couple of different blogs/online journals, how do you keep up with them AND find time to write fiction?
Hear that wail of “I’m behind again!”?? With great difficulty. It probably wasn’t smart (understatement!) to start three project-specific blogs at once when I already had my SFF.net newsgroup and LiveJournal running (the former for almost 15 years; the latter for just a few) but my interests and audiences are diverse enough that I was beginning to get negative comments from people who weren’t interested in one of the other topics–readers who didn’t want to see a picture of a spider, for instance, when they came looking for info on the latest book, or those who were eager for more about wildlife, land, critters, but didn’t read my fiction. So when I decided to start a website and blog for the Paksworld books, I thought of doing one for the 80Acres project as well, and then my agent suggested revamping the Speed of Dark website and adding a blog there. Then my publisher suggested joining Twitter and Facebook. I managed Twitter, but somehow screwed up with Facebook so I’m still not on that. Twitter, to my surprise, turned out to be a time-saver, because I could use it to announce new posts in the others and have it cross-post that to LiveJournal.
I do find it easier to post to the project-specific blogs–there’s no stopping to think “What shall I post about today?” because the blog itself defines it. If I open up 80acresonline.org, it’s going to be about wildlife, native plants, ecology, prairie restoration, etc. If it’s speedofdark-thebook.com, then it’ll be about autism spectrum or disability issues. And if it’s paksworld.com, then it’s about the current book projects.
But still–a time-sink and a temptation. My hands won’t handle more than 3000 words/day at this point, and if I post 500 words to each blog–that’s half my daily wordage on something that doesn’t get me closer to the book’s final form. I can’t afford to lose productivity on the books to the internet.
SF / Fantasy has a large community and its fandom is significant. The proliferation of blogs and online communities seems to be a natural extension of conventions and the like. Do you think participation in either is an important part of being a writer of SF and Fantasy?
Publishers sure think it is! And I think it can be, if it doesn’t interfere with the writing. Online writing–blogs, discussion boards, etc.–is much easier than writing fiction, so it’s a constant temptation and can definitely eat up both time and creative energy. SFFWorld, for instance: I use it for relaxation, but it’s sooo easy to drop in and then realize it’s three hours later and nothing else has been done. A few years back I realized I was spending half my writing wordage chatting away online…too much.
Any more film options lately?
What writers do you admire today?
The loaded question. I admire many writers–including out-of-genre writers and writers whose work influenced me a lot when I was younger–and not all for the same reasons. Inevitably, I’ll leave out someone I admire (but just didn’t think of right this minute.) In-genre currently active…Jack McDevitt, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tanya Huff, John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Naomi Novik, Peter Hamilton, John Moore, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Robin McKinley, and a newcomer, Sarah Bynum (whose first novel, Veracity, I think is brilliant), Not as active or formerly active would have to include Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Ray Bradbury, Roberta MacAvoy. Farther back, Lord Dunsany, Tolkein, Frank Herbert, Sturgeon, Heinlein, Clarke, Norton, Asimov, Kuttner & Moore in their various pen-names. For some of these it’s use of language, for others it’s ideas (at any level from tech to deep psychological/ethical/
Here’s your chance to let us know a secret: is there anything that you secretly would like to write that you’ve not yet had chance to do so?
If I thought I could write straight historical fiction as well as Mary Renault or Cecelia Holland, I’d try to do a novel based on Xenophon’s Anabasis. Talk about a research challenge, though!! My other writing ambitions aren’t secret…still want to write that book for parents and teachers of autistic kids, and still want to write a book about wildlife management and prairie restoration on small acreages. Time is against me.
Elizabeth: thank you very much for your time and your responses.