I have been trying for some time to get a few of my favorite authors to come here to my blog and talk about a lucky break in their careers. Unexpected forks in the road, weird bits of random serendipity… you name it. Writers work hard to achieve success, but every now and then something happens that they couldn’t ever predict or reproduce. Some of those moments, I think, must have good stories in them.
(And what’s more, they don’t even have to come packed with a moral lesson! Nobody’s going to say: New Author, you should try to get a concussion at a con! Or: Hey, car trouble is the way to go if you want to hit the NY Times Bestseller List!)
But the thing is, people (and perhaps especially writers) are superstitious. To some extent it feels like inviting bad luck to go crowing too loudly about good luck. It has taken me awhile to find someone who was willing to take this particular interview plunge. And how fitting that the trailblazer is Lara Elena Donnelly, whose audacious upcoming novel Amberlough is out on February 7th. This book is going to seem to many of you as though it was written just yesterday, because while it does not quite happen on Earth, or even in the United States of America, it is nevertheless a chilling capture of so many things we have lately come to fear.
Generally, you wouldn’t count a cracked exhaust manifold as a lucky break. Not in your writing career, or in your life as a whole. But if not for a cracked exhaust manifold, my debut novel Amberlough might not be coming out in February.
The sequence of unlikely events and circumstances that led me to this moment began on a winter day when blizzard warnings were flying thick and fast as the snow would later in the evening. I got up early, got in my mom’s car, and we drove to Michigan.
I was incredibly excited, for two reasons. One: even though I wasn’t sick, I was getting out of school. Two: I was about to meet my idol.
Holly Black’s urban fantasy novel Tithe had me rubbing four leaf clovers on my skin and staring through hollow stones, devouring any other fairy lore I could get my hands on. And I had read, on her LiveJournal (yes, LiveJournal) that she would be teaching at the Clarion Youth workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just a couple of hours from my hometown. My mom pulled me out of school and put me in the car.
It was at Clarion Youth that Holly mentioned a sci-fi, fantasy, and horror workshop for teens in Pennsylvania, called Alpha, where Tamora Pierce taught every year. If you haven’t heard of Tamora Pierce, quick recap: she’s written dozens and dozens of fantasy novels featuring young women as knights, mages, cops, and spies. Her characters get menstrual cramps while jousting, use birth control so pregnancy won’t interrupt their espionage missions, and have frank discussions about sex with their partners in the midst of quests in the realm of the Gods. She writes fantasy with female characters who have the practical concerns of real-life women. She is amazing.
But Holly couldn’t remember the name of the workshop, and over the next year—which included my first summer job, my first love, and my first novel (a glorious disaster, if you’re wondering)—the idea of it leaked out of my overheated teenage brain. I found a workshop in Scotland I wanted to go to. I bussed tables and saved money. My mom sold home-baked bread at the farmer’s market, and saved money. And then her car broke down.
See, we got to the car eventually.
A cracked exhaust manifold ain’t a cheap fix. Scotland was off the table. But my mom, determined I would get my summer workshop, remembered Holly Black saying something about Pennsylvania, and Tamora Pierce.
The Alpha SF/F/H/Workshop for Young Writers was my luckiest break of all. Taught by a combination of visiting authors and dedicated volunteer staff (all of them also writers), it was the first place I learned I could write and sell short fiction. The first place I heard about getting an agent, about writing a query letter, about how to submit my stories, why I should go to cons. The first place, in short, where writing was treated as a profession and I was treated as a budding professional.
It was also where I heard about the Dell Awards.
The Dell Magazine Awards for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy are awarded at ICFA, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, every year. The important thing about this award: All finalists, not just the winner, get free registration at the conference. If you can get yourself to Florida, you get a formal introduction to the field of SFF. You meet people like Kit Reed and Ted Chiang and Peter Straub and if you’re like me at age 19, you have no idea who they are, and when you learn you’re petrified. But you keep going back.
After I graduated from college, I wanted to keep attending ICFA. But I was unemployed, like every other graduate after the financial crisis, and I couldn’t afford conference registration. I couldn’t afford a flight. I couldn’t afford a hotel. But I knew, because of Alpha, that cons were a good place to network. Sage advice from author Jeffrey Ford—attend the same con over and over again, until people know your face—made me eager to get back to Orlando, especially since I had a finished novel ready for submission.
So I asked for help. I set up a GoFundMe and my friends and family sent me to Florida for a sixth time. Where, in an incidental conversation, I met Diana Pho, an associate editor at Tor, and mentioned my book.
“That sounds really interesting,” she said. “You should send that to me when it’s done.”
Reader, I finished revisions in a week. And after nearly a year of back-and-forth, revisions, agent queries, abject panic and brief flashes of ecstasy, I signed a contract.
Without that cracked exhaust manifold, I’d have ended up in Scotland instead of at Alpha. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have sold a book, eventually, but it might not have been Amberlough. It might not be coming out on February 7, 2017, or currently available for pre-order. Without that cracked exhaust manifold, I might not be turning this hypothetical into a bald-faced plug for my debut novel.
My mom’s still driving the same car, by the way. Honda Civics are tough little bugs.
The all-singing, all-dancing Lara Elena Donnelly is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writers’ workshops. Her work has appeared in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Mythic Delirium. Her debut novel, vintage-glam spy thriller Amberlough, drops on February 7, 2017 from Tor Books, but you can pre-order it now. Lara lives in Manhattan, but you can find her online at @larazontally or laradonnelly.com.
About this series: If I can find anyone bold enough to brag about their good fortune, Lucky Break will be another of my occasional interview series with authors, about bolts from the blue that aided their careers. If I can’t, I hope you and I will continue to enjoy new essays like those in my series: The Heroine Question, Let Me Inksplain, and What We Inherited.
I woke this morning to this lovely piece, from The Book Wars:
Sophie fills a niche in the genre as she is a post grad student whose academic nature often gets her in trouble but whose life makes for entertaining reading. The world Dellamonica has created continues to amaze with its increasing level of complexity.
On a completely other note, I (somewhat ineptly, I must admit) made a little Tweet thread yesterday, and then condensed it in Storify. Now am posting it here to see how it looks. Your patience with my learning curve is always appreciated:
Faith Mudge is a writer from Queensland, Australia, with a passion for fantasy, folk tales and mythology from all over the world – in fact, for almost anything with a glimmer of the fantastical. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies, including Kaleidoscope, Cranky Ladies of History, Hear Me Roar and Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists. She posts reviews and articles at beyondthedreamline.wordpress.com, and can also be found at beyondthedreamline.tumblr.com.
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess?
I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Jane Eyre, but I’m pretty sure it was in my early teens, around the point when I was devouring so many other classic novels that my written vocabulary started to sound like a teenage Victorian, the kind of prose that’s less purple and more a really annoying shade of magenta. I do not now like a lot of those books, but I’m always going to have a certain residual fondness. They were what I needed at the time.
Jane Eyre was different. It’s a favourite of my mother’s, so the copy I read was hers. These days I have two of my own, just to be safe. I’m lucky – mine was a childhood filled with stories and I had a small army of heroines to look up to, all of whom have contributed to who I am in different ways. It’s hard to pick just one! But Jane Eyre is one of those books that leaves a strong impression every time I re-read it, reminding me of just how good it is. The writing is decisive and elegant, the plot is strong. And most of all, I love Jane. She remains one of my favourite characters in anything ever.
Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
Oh, that’s easy. Jane is indomitable. She starts out as this fierce, desperate little girl who craves love more than anything and grows into a woman with a quiet, cool exterior who is an absolute force of nature underneath, a woman who is strong enough to walk away from love when it isn’t good for her. She is an extraordinary balance of calm head and passionate heart, with a rich inner life that she doesn’t share with people who don’t deserve it. In the depths of her despair, she decides that she will care for herself – which is a tremendously powerful statement that has always stuck with me. How many heroines, even now, are allowed to say that? The prickly edges of Jane and Rochester’s personalities mostly work together very well, but she’s only ever in his life on her terms and he’s very much aware of that. I detest St John, not just for being the unrelentingly unpleasant person that he is, but for getting at Jane’s weak point, which is a strong sense of duty that can be turned against her. She’s also a very loving person, amazingly non-judgemental given the times when she lived, and she doesn’t need to be pretty or socially important to have a story worth telling – or to be worth loving in return.
How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your creations owe her?
All my characters are very different people, of course, but that indomitability, that strength of will, is definitely a trait carried throughout my work. I like writing about women who say no. The complexity of duty and how to define your own moral compass, what we owe the people in our lives and what we owe ourselves, are big themes in Jane Eyre and often weave themselves into my stories as well. Jane is a complicated woman making difficult decisions and she’s never dismissed or punished by the narrative for being the person that she is. I love that. I try to treat my protagonists with the same respect.
How do you feel about the word heroine? Does the word heroine have a purpose that isn’t served equally well by hero?
There does seem to be a trend towards the disuse of feminised words and that really bothers me. As a society, we need gender-neutral terminology. That’s very important. But it’s a big language! There is enough space for gendered terms as well, if they are useful, and I think the word ‘heroine’ is very useful. What’s wrong with a word that says, unequivocally, ‘I am a woman and I am amazing’? There are plenty of specifically feminine insults. Why not build up a lexicon of strength?
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with (mostly) female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will allow you to browse all the other interviews, with awesome people like Linda Nagata, Kay Kenyon, and S.B. Divya. If you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here.
What We Inherited opens today with author Eugene Fischer‘s answer to my question about categorizing stories–tagging them with qualities that highlight sexual preference, gender, ability, or race: I think that the purpose of this kind of categorization is to tell marginalized people, “Hey, you know that thing that’s really personally important to you but broadly culturally ignored? It’s important too! Here’s a cultural artifact the very existence of which implies your lived experience matters!”
That’s hopefully, at the very least, psychologically empowering. Empowering the marginalized is a virtuous pursuit. Any knock-on benefits of artistic work increasing the perceived humanity of the marginalized are nice too.
I have asked Eugene here as part of my series of interviews about the Heiresses of Russ 2016 anthology and his story, “The New Mother,” which originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Is categorizing stories in this way, then, a desired end point? A necessary stage on some collective journey humanity is taking?
Between desired end point or necessary stage on a collective journey, it’s definitely not the former. I’d certainly like to believe in the latter, but I’m uncomfortable thinking too teleologically about cultural development. One would hope for a society where polyphony, diversity, and individual dignity are celebrated on a level more fundamental than distastes and disagreements, and marginalization of any people seen to be abhorrent. (And, given the topic at hand, for that to be reflected in the way art is marketed and consumed.) But just at the moment I feel pretty pessimistic. It seems to me that cultural trends are, on the average, pointing in an infuriatingly regressive direction.
So: “Necessary?” Yes. “Stage?” Sigh. I hope so.
Would you say your story in the collection is typical or emblematic of your work, or an outlier?
My body of published work is still fairly small, but if I’ve been successful, it will be typical in the sense of being thorough and humane. Those are qualities I value in fiction. I like stories that take their aesthetic conceits seriously, and dislike stories that are reductive in their portrayal of individuals, cultures, science. My story in this collection is the longest I’ve published so far, and has been the most well-received, so there’s certainly a lot of positive reinforcement to continue working in the same mode.
One of my previous interview series, The Heroine Question, generated some interesting discussion of the gendered term Heroine. What do you think of Heiresses of Russ as a title for this project? Should it be Inheritors or Heirs?
I don’t think there’s any good reason for gender to be encoded in language, so in the abstract I’m all for ceasing to use the feminine forms of words. An actor is an actor is an actor; you’re only inviting biased expectations if you make some of them actresses instead. But, that said, we don’t get to live in the abstract, we live with the momentum of our very specific history. Part of that history–a part that Joanna Russ worked to combat–is the erasure of the contributions of women. So if ever there is a case where it makes sense to use the gendered artifacts of the language our culture has evolved, doing so in service of highlighting experiences that same culture has historically marginalized seems like the one.
Speaking personally as a man who enjoys being gender-nonconformist, I’m thrilled to have been designated an Heiress of Russ. But the world I want to live in is the one where it would be Heirs or Inheritors trivially, because a gendered expectation of what it means to inherit is so distant as to be quaint.
What’s next for you, publication-wise?
My upcoming publication is a short story in an anthology that I’m not sure has even has a set title. So I can’t talk too much about that, except to say that it will be my first pure fantasy publication, and, influenced by the pessimism I mentioned above, is probably my darkest story yet. Right now I’m working on my next piece of overly ambitious science fiction, which I can barely make out the narrative shape of and am unsure I can pull off–just how “The New Mother
” felt when I started it. Currently, working on it means struggling through a lot of LaTeX compiled papers and highlighting bits that seem narratively exploitable. If it ever turns into something readable, I think it’ll be a story about different ways that people make decisions.
Eugene Fischer grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and currently lives in Austin. His most recent publication, “The New Mother”, is included in Heiresses of Russ, and has won James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, come in 2nd place for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and been a finalist for the Nebula Award. For forthcoming work, see his website, www.eugenefischer.com.
About this interview: 2016 marked my debut as an editor, with the Lethe Press anthology Heiresses of Russ 2016. I co-edited with the capable and lovely Steve Berman; our Table of Contents announcement is here. At that time I asked some of my contributors if they’d be interested in talking a little about the ideas behind their stories, about the idea of lesbian-themed genre fiction, or anything else that seemed interesting and relevant. These are their replies.
A fan named GJones says, in the comments thread of my essay “Grownups are the Enemy.”
…I’ll mention that I shared one of your short stories, “The Cage”, with my friends as a specific example of doing things right; namely, having characters deal with a violent male antagonist through legal means and the strength of their community, *without* needing a male authority figure to confront him, and with female characters playing an active role. I may be looking at the wrong kind of SF, but stories like that are quite rare in my experience.
This beautiful bit of praise came in a few days ago, but I’m behind on things. (So many things! They’re all little things, but they piled into drifts because I caught a death flu, decided on an ambitious deadline for the new book, accepted an exciting surprise teaching gig whose syllabus is due any minute now, had a fabulous book launch for The Nature of a Pirate at Bakka Phoenix Books, and–to top it all off–clicked on a Very Bad Thing in an e-mail last Thursday, thus effectively hospitalizing my computer for a few days.) Anyway, I’m shoveling my way back to the concrete, scrape by tiny scrape.
One of the things in the drifts was an automated note from Tor saying that someone had added a comment to the essay. No surprise, really–I reposted a link to the article about a week ago. It’s about Stephen King’s doorstopper of a problematic horror novel, It. When I went to see who’d said what, I found the above comment, and more besides. The review of “The Cage” was heartwarming, and gratifying, and so good to hear.
(I should mention this story’s still available for reading, for free, at Tor.com. “The Cage.”)
Telling authors what they’re doing right, and why, takes time and energy. It’s a thoughtful act, and–on an internet where feminism can draw contention and acrimony–it’s even a brave one. GJones, I appreciate your generous and articulate comments, so much. Thank you. I promise to keep working to make these kinds of stories less rare.