Those of you who know I’m a history nerd could probably have guessed that I’d approach Jack Dann for an interview sooner or later: he’s the guy, after all, who wrote The Memory Cathedral – A Secret History of Leonardo Da Vinci! Not only has he won the Nebula, the Aurealis Award, and The World Fantasy Award, he holds the title of Esteemed Knight in the Mark Twain Society.
Jack has been candid and funny and very revealing in this interview about his writing career, and I don’t want to keep you from him a second longer than necessary. So enjoy!
I’m a New York expat living in Australia. I sort of shuffle between our apartment in Melbourne and a small farm in a beautiful part of the country called South Gippsland. It overlooks the sea and a dragon-shaped landmass (and a national park) called Wilson’s Promontory. I live with my wife Janeen Webb, who is an internationally recognized critic, award-winning writer, and a retired university professor. I’ve been writing since the late sixties, and have written or edited over seventy-five books and a bunch of short stories. I’ve won a handful of awards…ach! This is boring stuff!
New and usually young writers tend to put all sorts of dashing things in their bios such as wrestling alligators in Florida and being soldiers of fortune in Algeria. They write that that they train Lipizzaner horses and have pedigreed Manx and Siamese cats that only meow in iambic pentameter. I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the mad old days, so here is some stuff I absolutely and positively would never put into my book bios:
I was…a door-to-door cable television salesman, lifeguard, law investigator, and a law school drop-out. I sold all my text books and became “a freelance writer” the day after Damon Knight accepted one of my stories for his Orbit anthology series. I’ve been a ghostwriter, soup distributor, and a carnival roustabout (that means I cleaned up elephant poo); and I’ve have had my share of nuts sending me death threats, mandalas, and Polaroid photos of their naked selves after they’d read my books. (And here I thought all along that I was writing light, frothy Runyonesque escapist fiction for sophisticates.)
I lived in a hotel in New York City immortalized by Donald E. Westlake—I remember that the doorman wore a tee-shirt and carried a baseball bat. I’ve had two advertising agencies, sat on the board of directors of a New York insurance company, failed at getting a job as a cab driver, worked with the late, great film director Nicholas Ray, and was one of the (God-forgive-me) pioneers in the early days of telemarketing. I was, for a while, the bull-moose loser of Nebula Awards. (Yes, I did win one!) I’ve been a marksman, window-washer, and a lousy jazz pianist. I can’t sing a note and I’ve always had cats as pets…only now we have a dog, a beagle called Bertie Beagleman, who does not respond to commands unless there is food involved: so I suppose I still have a cat of sorts.
The project of the moment, the project I’m taking a break from to have some fun with this interview, is a book—or rather a series of books—that I swore I’d never write. I’m working on a—I guess one could call it a—fat fantasy series. Although I love fantasy, am a Tolkien reader and re-reader, and love the genre, I really don’t have time for the copycat run of fantasy novels, the badly reupholstered Tolkien knock-offs. I admire (and envy!) the brilliantly original fantasists such as George R. R. Martin, Mary Stewart, R. A. MacAvoy, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Phillip Pullman, but I figured that the big, cosmic, multi-book fantasy genre was just not for me.
Alas, that was a very bad thing for this writer to reveal to his very nasty, noncompliant, and treacherous unconscious. After bragging loudly that I would never ever write such a thing, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t look for ideas…they seemed to be landing all over me like sand-flies in summer.
This fantasy series is set in an alternate Renaissance universe and our universe… and characters can also come from different time periods, which they do! But it is a fantasy, as it assumes the Gnostic Gospels are real, and a number of the characters are angels and demons. Gabriel, for instance, is one of the protagonists.
I have multiple books on the go… I’ve just finished an anthology with Nick Givers entitled Ghosts by Gaslight; am copyediting a Borgo double, which will include my short novels The Economy of Light and Jubilee; compiling three new anthologies to take to publishers; writing the first book of the fantasy series—the book is tentatively titled Shadows in the Stone; doing preliminary work on a book about writing fiction; working with my bibliographer on a second edition of The Work of Jack Dann; some film stuff (no, I can’t discuss any of that yet); and…I think I’ll stop now. It’s hurting my head!
I started writing fiction with the aim of getting published around 1966, and sold my first story (with George Zebrowski) to a magazine called Anubis, which promptly went bust. (We later sold it to a hardcover anthology.) We went on to sell another collaboration to Worlds of If, which was the sister magazine to Galaxy; and that story, “Traps” was published in 1974. So I was in my late twenties. Influences? I’ll try not to bore the reader, but they include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Loren Eisley, J.G. Ballard, Thomas N. Disch, Philip K. Dick, Elizabeth Bowen, J.D. Salinger, Edgar Pangborn, Jerzy Kosinsky, Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, Marquez, Lem, Wells, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty, Stapledon, Huismans, Mark Twain, John Fowles. I could (but mercifully won’t) go on and on. But if I had to choose just two early influences, it would be Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
I do remember a specific moment when I decided to be a writer. I was in a terminal ward, as they didn’t expect me to survive, and I had a copy of Hemingway’s Down and Out in Paris on my bed table. I was too ill with peritonitis to read, but it became a sort of talisman as I swung back and forth between agonizing pain and the numbing, cold blue dreams induced by Demerol. I promised myself that if I survived, I was going to what I wanted to do: Write. That was over forty-five years ago.
(To get an idea of what I experienced, read my story “Camps”.)
I’m a writer, but that’s only a part of what I am. Sure, I could quit, but I don’t want to. It’s the best life I can imagine. I’ve spent a lifetime following my bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say, so I can’t complain. I’ve done other things—door to door salesman, principal partner in two advertising agencies, director of a New York insurance company—but I’ve always written, no matter what. That’s what I do, and, okay, I suppose in my secret heart of hearts (alas, no longer secret!), I am a writer, then everything else.
I began writing SF and fantasy, I grew up reading SF and fantasy, and although I write ‘across genres’, I keep going back to SF and fantasy, two genres I love. I write historical and contemporary novels…I write what interests me at the time, and right now, I’m doing what I swore I’d never do: that fat fantasy trilogy. Go figure!
I don’t believe in the idea of writer as ‘artiste’. When I had a family, and a six book deal went down the tubes, I became a door-to-door salesman, although I’d never sold a thing in my life. A cable salesman came to the door of my newly mortgaged house, and I made a deal with him: If he’d bring me into the cable company, I’d give him writing lessons. I took care of my family, and when I was making enough money writing, I became a full-time writer.
Every writer has to find his or her own path, and it’s always frustrating and difficult to balance art and craft and life. I tell young writers not to quit their day jobs. I tell them to get up early and write, to give yourself that time so the rest of the day can be given generously to all the other tasks of being a person living in the world. I believe that writers need experience…so learn things, take chances, get the best education possible, become streetwise, and don’t let anything get in the way of your writing. By that I mean, don’t make excuses. If you teach in a university, that’s great. But don’t allow that to become a substitute for sitting down to write. I edit anthologies because I love the process of finding new writers and wonderful work: It feels like writing, and gets me through the difficult stretches. But I keep writing, even if it means bumping up against one dead-end after another.
Frankly, those who really want to write will do so…and the rest will just make excuses…legitimate and rational excuses, but excuses just the same.
Oh, and lastly, I’m not good at balancing my life and my writing. I screw it up all the time. But I write!
You know what the real problem is? I need a few more lifetimes. I’m not a fast writer, and there are so many projects I have in mind. Right now I’m writing the fantasy based on the Gnostic Gospels. If I can stay alive and compos mentis long enough, there are dozens of novels I’d like to write.
I was lucky, as I began selling fiction immediately. I think that was a question of being in the right places at the right times. As I said, everyone’s path is different. I taught myself how to write by writing short stories…and the short stories kept getting longer and longer until I found myself just warming up around the hundred thousand word mark. Yes, there were big sacrifices, but I didn’t notice them until later. It’s romantic when you’re young to be living out there on the edge, not knowing where the next dollar might be coming from; but doing the hustle becomes more difficult as the years weigh down and the midriff bulges. I’ve spent my life living at two hundred miles an hour…with almost no regrets. (I used to say ‘no regrets’, but I’ve discovered you can’t really be alive and not have regrets.
I didn’t go to Clarion, although I’m a big fan and have been a tutor twice at Clarion South in Australia. But workshops were very important to my early growth as a writer. I was one of the original members of the Guilford Writers Workshop and later the Philford Writers Workshop. I wrote about that time in my collection of collaborative fiction entitled The Fiction Factory. Here’s a relevant bit from the book:
Gardner (Dozois) brought me into the Guilford Writers Workshop, which used to meet in Jack C. Haldeman II’s decaying four-story Victorian mansion in the Guilford section of Baltimore; and I became a regular member of the group called the Guilford Gafia (nicknamed after “The Milford Mafia,” which was what some people were calling Damon Knight’s and Kate Wilhelm’s now legendary Milford Writers Conferences). Our group comprised Jack and his brother Joe W. Haldeman, George Alec Effinger, Gardner, Ted White, Tom Monteleone, Robert Thurston, William Nabors, and myself.
Guilfords would last a weekend, a weekend of concentrated, exhausting work: staying up most of the night reading the stories to be workshopped the next day, then workshopping, reading, eating together, partying; we were creating our group mythology, creating fast friendships, as we honed our critical and writing skills. It was the Guilfords, and later the Philford Writers Workshops that paved the way for the frenetic, prolific, never-to-be-repeated Fiction Factory days of the eighties.
The Philfords included writers such as David Hartwell, Samuel R. Delany, John Ford, James Patrick Kelly, Timonthy Sullivan, Tony Sarowitz, Greg Frost, and Tom Purdom. And the “Fiction Factory” days that followed was the time I honed my short story skills and collaborated on short fiction with Gardner Dozois, Michael Swanwick, and Susan Casper. We were selling to the slicks such as Playboy, Penthouse, Omni, Oui, and actually making reasonable money for short stories. So, yes, workshops for me were an education. But many writers do not do well in a workshop environment. Depends on the writer. We all approach writing differently, reach our literary goals by weird and wonderfully circuitous ways, so what worked for me might be anathema for you.
I do remember a moment of artistic breakthrough…in fact, I remember a few. One will suffice. (Yes, gentle reader, you can breathe easier now.) I was writing my second novel, Junction, and I just could not find the right ending. I was thoroughly, completely, unreservedly blocked, so I read anything that felt somehow relevant to what I was working on; I chewed my fingernails, went to movies, took long walks; and finally was about to give it up and start another project. I remember taking a nap in the afternoon. I had pulled the drapes across the windows, yet I had not turned off the bare light bulb that hung over the bed. I remember being jolted awake by an explosion of light. Nothing miraculous had happened. The light was still on. I was staring up at it. But in that instant I saw the end of the novel, scene-by-scene in absolutely perfect detail. It only remained for me to write it down. Go figure.
I don’t know if that’s what you were asking. It’s probably not a breakthrough in the sense you meant it, but what the hell, it’s what came to mind. Ask me about Harlan Ellison and public speaking in another interview: now that was a breakthrough!
I think the big surprise was that publishers would buy my novels. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I was fooling them, getting another one past them…and other writers tell me that they feel the same way. We’re really all phonies, you know. Once the publishers realize that, the jig is up for all of us. The bad surprises? Ah, rejection…but then, as we all know, that really isn’t a surprise.
It still feels great. Which definitely proves that there must be something seriously wrong with me.
I know and admire Elizabeth Bear‘s writing–I had the good fortune to review Hammered when it was first released, and rave about Carnival, every chance I get. I teach her story “Two Dreams on Trains” in my Writing the Fantastic course at UCLA.
I forget, sometimes, that she and I have never met. I follow her Twitter feed and her blog, where she talks about her passions, writing craft, and the artistic life with its constant juggles and challenges. It all comes across as real and familiar; it resonates with me. I feel as though I know her Giant Ridiculous Dog and cats, though in fact I don’t. I’m one of the many readers who never misses her Criminal Minds recaps, which are charmingly filed under the Geeks with Guns tag.
Even though she is an unselfish and honest blogger, I asked her to do a Journey interview out of sheer greed, just so I and you could get to know her a bit better.
PHOTO BY S. SHIPMAN
Here’s what she told me:
I live in Manchester, Connecticut, with a giant ridiculous dog, a presumptuous cat, a room-mate, and the roomie’s cat, a giant fluffy monster. I love to cook, and do it recreationally; I am an apprentice gardener and a really lousy guitar player; and I have a collection of outdoor hobbies including kayaking, rock climbing, and hiking. I read compulsively, and I’m a third-generation SF fan on both sides of the family.
I tend to have a lot of irons in the fire in terms of projects. There’s Shadow Unit, of course–tons of free online fiction in a semi-interactive, semi real-time narrative, written by some of SFF’s best writers, established and new. I’m fortunate to be doing a lot of teaching this year–Clarion, Viable Paradise, and I’m a guest lecturer at Odyssey this fall. And I have three books coming out this month (two of them delayed from last year): The White City, a vampire novella set in an alternate Moscow around the turn of the 20th century; The Sea Thy Mistress, a periapocalyptic Norse technofantasy, the third in the Edda of Burdens trilogy; and Grail, far-future science fiction about posthuman explorers aboard a generation ship, the third in the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy.
I also just delivered Range of Ghosts, which is the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy I’m very excited about. It’s nearly unique, I think, in that its setting is Eurasian and Central Asian rather than European. It’s not a historical fantasy, however, but an attempt to create a fantasy setting that draws from different backgrounds than most Western fantasy.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to find a real profession, something that might lead to financial stability and regular access to healthcare, but storytelling seems to be the only thing I’m any good at.
I’ve been writing fiction since I figured out that stories came from somewhere. Which is pretty much first grade, as far as I recall. I remember writing little stapled “books” of stories about dinosaurs and race horses and aliens. Apparently, this is the thing I was meant to do.
Oh, I have quit. And I have worked at various other jobs from the time I was sixteen until I was thirty-six, more or less. Some of them didn’t leave a lot of time for writing. I made a couple of fairly serious attempts to get published in the 90’s, but I didn’t have a mechanism for improving my work, at that point, and I didn’t know how to learn the necessary skills to become a professional writer, so eventually I would get frustrated and pack it in.
From 1997-2001 I basically didn’t write anything. Toward the end of that I was employed at a job that demanded sixty or seventy hours a week and didn’t pay a living wage, and I had a fairly miserable marriage. I actually got back into writing after 9/11, when I was laid off and there was no work to be had, and I had taken the dogs to the dog park so much they were becoming territorial about it. Fortuitously, at that point in time, my friend Julia Frizzell told me about an online community–the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I am now, in a moment of narrative circularity, employed as a resident editor–and I was fortunate enough to fall in with a group of other writers of similar skill level who were very smart about publishing and very determined to get published.
You will recognize some of their names. Among that group was Karin Lowachee, C.C.Finlay, Sarah Prineas, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Amanda Downum, Leah Bobet–and many more, some already established, some still in the process of breaking in.
We bootstrapped each other, I think. Peer group is so amazingly important.
I’ve always been an SFF reader. I was raised to be one. I read other things too–literary fiction, mystery, biography, nonfiction, poetry.
But–other than the juvenile stage, where I wrote horse stories, and a plot-coupon epic fantasy I’m still stealing bits from (Kasimir, the steampunk warsteed in the Edda of Burdens, came from that originally, as did Gavin the Cyber-Basilisk, who appears in the Jacob’s Ladder books) –I originally started off as a poet. Because I couldn’t figure out how to write narrative arc. I had a gifted-and-talented program teacher in third and fourth grade (Mrs. Katz) and a fifth-grade teacher (Mrs. Kology) both of whom really encouraged my poetry–as did my mother, Karen Westerholm, who is an award-winning poet in her own right. She’s been a National Poetry Slam finalist.
So I wrote poetry through high school and into college, and had a lot of false starts on stories that never went beyond four pages. In college, I worked for the school paper as a journalist, which is a little more impressive than it sounds: The Daily Campus is (or was) an independently-funded paper that published five times weekly, and did a fair amount of reasonably serious reporting.
Then sometime in my mid twenties I learned how to write narratives, kind of. I have a very inductive, nonlinear thought process, and early attempts reflect that. Which is one reason I was unsuccessful in selling them. I could no longer write poetry, though.
Around 2002, I started writing work that sold, and in the last couple of years I’ve started being able to write poetry again, which is a relief.
I’ve got an unpublished YA historical mystery with Sarah Monette that we’ve been unable to sell so far. I have some ideas for more mainstream stuff I may write someday, but I’ll need to have the time to do it.
I think one writes stuff better when one has done it one’s self. I read everything I can get my hands on, talk to experts, where practicable try it myself. I am an archer; I’ve done some swordfighting; I try to keep learning new things and practice things my characters need to know.
I support myself with my writing, and sometimes (often) it’s pretty precarious. Especially with the industry in the state it’s in during the current zombie apocalypse, as Sarah Monette likes to call our Current Troubles. I write fiction, book reviews–anything that they’ll pay me for and I can find time to do. I work almost constantly, honestly, and at best I scrape by.
I so far have only taught at workshops, although I have my eyes peeled for a teaching gig–but since I don’t have a degree, and I have neither the time nor the money nor the interest in an MLA, I have to take what I can get.
Most of my money comes from fiction, though. I keep hoping the foreign rights sales will take off, but they haven’t, yet.
I work almost every day, and sometimes I put in twelve-hour days. Of course, I can do that on the couch, in my pajamas, so it’s not as onerous as it sounds. But I have to make time to schedule stuff like social time and exercise. I neglected that for a while, and it was very very bad for me.
Someday I’d like to write a Great Book, even if I’m the only one who knows it. I think the Stratford Man duology–Ink & Steel and Hell & Earth–is as close as I have gotten so far. I’d kind of like to write a graphic novel–Blood and Iron started off as one, actually, when I was in high school. And then this Matt Wagner guy came along with a little book called MAGE….
I sold some poetry to young-artist venues in fifth grade or so, and a few short stories to small markets in the 90s. But honestly, I sent my first short story to Asimov’s when it was still IASFM–and I was in high school–and I didn’t sell a story there until after I had won the Campbell. I tell people it took me thirty years of fairly consistent practice to learn to write fiction, and that’s not far off.
I don’t think in terms of sacrifices or rewards. Storytelling is my life’s work.
Awards are lovely, and they can give readers a reason to give you a chance. But honestly, I’m not a big seller. I’ve had a great deal of critical success, but I’m still very much a niche writer in terms of market. Possibly I’m just not that commercial, for one reason or another.
I could never afford something like Clarion. I’m from a working-class family, and I’ve spent my entire life living hand-to-mouth, more or less. I’ve learned to do what I do through consistent effort, the generous criticism and mentorship of my peers, and trial and error. Reading slush and critiquing the manuscripts of others has been a great teacher for me–it’s a wonderful way to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes polished stories are hard to pick apart to see what makes them tick.
Writing for a living is exactly what everybody says it is–a ton of work, a profoundly difficult skill it can take a lifetime to master, very satisfying and frustrating in equal measures, and a lousy way to get rich.
I mean there’s little stuff–I tell friends who are waiting for the publication of their first novel that the best thing they can do for the two months surrounding the drop date is get drunk, stay drunk, unplug the internet, and write the next book. Of course, nobody does.
Most of what happens in a book’s or a story’s career is outside of a writer’s hands. All we can do is write the best, most honest, most real things we can. And then accept that some people will love them, and some will hate them, and the vast majority will go “meh.”
Being a writer is an exercise in relinquishing control.
I often feel like I’m doing what I have to do, and doing my best to do it honestly, and help as many other people as I can. Oh, and scary. Constantly terrifying, because I am always hard up against the edge of my skill and sure I’m going to fail, or starve, or both. The first of that is the best I can ask from life; the last is a little Live! Without A Net!
Someday I’d like to feel secure, I guess. That would be nice.
Walter Jon Williams and I have been shuffling around the same parts of the Internet for awhile and have probably crossed paths at conventions, but I only truly met him for the first time last spring at the Locus Awards. Kelly knows him better… she attended the fabulous Taos Toolbox workshop with Walter and Connie Willis in 2007, and will happily tell you that it was a fantastic and thoroughly useful master class.
What this means is I have no juicy gossip or hilarious escapades to relate about him, unless I resort to making up lies. I will tell you he was the most camera-aware author at the Locus Awards, and caught me zooming in for a candid while everyone else was distracted, understandably enough, by Connie.
In this particular interview, Walter does not mention a couple works that are among my favorites of his: The stunning U.S. disaster novel The Rift, and a complex and delicious space opera, in three parts, called Dread Empire’s Fall. Do please check out the new books he talks about in this interview–as he says, Deep State might as well be a current news story! But all Walter’s books are terrific, and I cannot recommend them enough.
I was born in Minnesota, and now I live on an old Spanish land grant in rural New Mexico with my wife Kathy and our cat. The landscape is blissfully beautiful, and at this season cranes fly overhead at sunrise and sunset. A few miles to the North is the Isleta Pueblo, where people have been following the same way of life for nearly a thousand years. A few miles South is Trinity, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Ancient traditions, cutting-edge science, inspiring landscapes, Third World government. You might say it’s a country of contrasts.
Orbit has just released my new novel Deep State, which is amazingly timely for its depiction of a people-power revolution in a Middle Eastern country organized by social media. (The timing on this one is kinda phenomenal.) Deep State is the sequel to This Is Not a Game, which is a near-future thriller in which an online game begins a disturbing creep into reality. (You can read the books independently.)
I’ve just finished the third book in the series, currently titled Mister Baby Head. The publisher doesn’t seem to care for the title, so by the time it appears— a year or so from now— it may have another one.
In addition, I’ll be teaching Taos Toolbox this summer. Toolbox is a master class for fantasy and SF writers, two weeks in the mountains above Taos learning Super Secret Master Material with me, Nancy Kress, and Jack Skillingstead. If you think you might want to write this stuff, you might want to check this out.
To steal an old Harlan Ellison joke, I probably left stories scrawled on my mother’s womb. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was maybe four years old. Before I knew how to read and write, anyway, because I’d dictate stories to my parents, which I would then illustrate (badly) with crayons.
The first science fiction novel read, when I was in second grade, was Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. It’s still my favorite Heinlein.
Later on, I was swept away by the Sixties Wave: Delany, Zelazny, Russ, Silverberg, Disch, Wilhelm, Moorcock. I still think of that period as a golden age. Fortunately SF has had many golden ages.
I always took myself seriously, which was probably necessary, because nobody else did. “This time it’s for publication!” I would say to myself, age 13, as I wrote a 450-page hideously derivative fantasy novel.
I was compelled to write ceaselessly for several decades there, and then one day I woke up and— hey, no compulsion! I don’t know where the compulsion came from, I don’t know why it went away. It’s not like I’d written myself out, or anything. There’s still a lot I’d like to say.
But yes, I could quit now, but I don’t know what else I’d do with my day. Writing gives me focus. And as for getting a different job— well, I’m a middle-aged man with no work history. I’m not even qualified to flip patties at Burger King.
So it looks like science fiction will be stuck with me for a while.
My first sales were historical fiction— I wrote five sea-adventure novels in the genre of CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian. Then the market for historical fiction disappeared, and at that moment my first SF sale happened.
With me, story comes first. So when I start working up the story, I try to do enough research to justify the story I want to tell. The research goes on as the story is being written. I’m very intense when it comes to research, and I’m deeply grateful that the Internet now exists, and that I don’t have to quite so much time digging through obscure volumes in university libraries.
I never had a full-time day job. I taught freshman English at a university for a while, and after that I had the usual run of part-time jobs while I worked at the writing— remember, I was working under an irresistible compulsion which did not allow for rational planning, food, or sleep. When I first sold, I was able to earn enough to support me in a far-from-posh lifestyle. In time the lifestyle grew a little more comfortable. I’ve been supporting myself through writing for thirty years now.
Dream projects: there’s a novel about Ben Franklin for which I’ve written 150 pages, but it doesn’t fit into any existing category so I can’t seem to interest publishers in it. If I get enough free time on my hands, I’m going to write it, sell it for a fortune, and THEN THEY’LL ALL BE SORRY! THEY WILL!
For the most part I’m self-taught. I took a couple writing courses in college, but all they did was make me want to avoid college writing courses. In my struggling days I couldn’t afford Clarion or any other workshop. I knew a few writers, but they had somewhat different goals. So I just kept hurling myself against the barriers until they broke. It was the least intelligent way to go about it— but as I’ve said, I was compelled. I had no real choice in the matter.
During my apprenticeship, I wrote two novels that have not sold to this day. (Now I know why they’re unsellable.) But when I finally sold something, I sold big— it was a three-book historical series. I was 25 years old, and completely over the moon.
If you’re a working writer, you have artistic breakthroughs every week, if not every day. But there was one big sea-change around 1983, when suddenly a whole lot of things fell into place. I wrote Hardwired, which was my biggest novel, and I figured out how to finish Voice Of The Whirlwind, which I’d started three or four years earlier, and I plotted the next four or five books and a lot of short fiction . . . I spent a lot of years just writing everything I’d worked out in that one six-month period. I’ve had bursts of creativity since, but nothing like that.
The best surprise ever, in all of galactic history till now, was that I’ve been able to keep this up for thirty years, and that people are still reading and enjoying my work.
The bad surprises had to do with the field of publishing, and how publishers so often work against their own and their writers’ best interests. Why do they pay lots of money for a new book and then do nothing to sell it? Why do they invest in a new series by an exciting new author and then let the completed books sit on a desk for years, until momentum has completely passed? I could go on and on, but the examples would grow more and more depressing.
Most days I still feel like a young punk, kicking over the traces and trying to think of something outrageous to do. Other days I manage to feel like an Elder Statesman. I can pronounce on topics and have younger writers take me seriously— or at least they pretend they do.
Maybe that’s what’s brought out the urge to teach, after all this time. At any rate, I’m very much enjoying doing Taos Toolbox, and a surprising number of graduates have started selling novels, and that’s always gratifying.
I’m hardly ever bored. There’s always something interesting to do, or read, or look at, or dream about. I haven’t stopped the dreaming, and I don’t plan to.
The first time I ever heard of Hiromi Goto’s name, the speaker was a stand-up comedienne. She cited Goto’s fiction as one of her inspirations, and went on to tell a deeply hilarious and thoroughly profane story involving a remote-controlled vibrator.
The second time I heard of her, she’d just won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, which goes to works of SF or Fantasy that expand our understanding of gender.
You can imagine that when I finally got to meet Hiromi, I was expecting big things… and I’ll tell you now, she doesn’t disappoint. Witty, brilliant, dedicated to storytelling, and thoroughly awesome at it to boot, Hiromi Goto is currently in the midst of an exciting year. Not only did her novel Half World win the Sunburst Award in the Young Adult category, but now she’s getting even more kudos for the book… but I’ll let you tell her about that, and herself, personally:
I’m a grandmother-raised Japanese Canadian currently living on the West Coast of British Columbia. But I’ve also spent many years living in the Prairies. (I mention places because place has a tremendous impact upon my imagination and my writing.) I’m also super excited to share news that Half World has been long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award!
I’m currently working on Darkness, a companion novel to Half World, which is my most recent YA/crossover publication. It’s due out with Penguin Canada in 2012. I’m also juggling a few other projects—I’m hoping to finish an adult novel soon.
I started out “drawing stories” as a child, and shifted to words in my adolescence. Once I learned how to read I was sucked into the vast and wondrous universe of myriad experiences. I definitely read as a child in order to escape—and that books/stories (as well as the natural environment) could transport me so was a survival strategy as well as a path of learning. Several authors/books stand out from childhood: Bill Peet, especially The Wump World, The Hardy Boys, Heidi, The Girl Who Owned a City, Roald Dahl, the Little House books, A Wrinkle in Time, The Borrowers, Pippi Longstocking, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Cricket in Times Square, The Secret Rats of NIMH, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess (in Japanese), The Outsiders, Judy Blume books, horse books, and so many more!
I do have a memory from my childhood—I think I was probably between the ages of 9-11 years old? I had just finished a book that had transported me, and I had this realization that I had been whisked away, into another place and time, into someone else’s world, to feel and experience so much, just through words. Kind of like the moment in Alice in Wonderland when Alice realizes that the soldiers are just a deck of cards. I finally perceived the constructedness of the experience. “They’re words,” I thought. “Someone just arranged words, and I felt so much. It was like I was there…. A writer did that. A person. To make someone else feel this way—I’d like to be able to do that.” That was a seed moment in my process to becoming an author.
I began what I call “writing seriously” when I enrolled in undergraduate creative writing classes after I finished in BA in English Literature at the age of twenty-two.
I don’t think it’s possible “to quit writing” entirely—we ought to differentiate between writing as a profession and writing for oneself. We also write letters and emails, etc. So there’s the dividing line between the public and the personal. Writing professionally is about writing to a public space. Could I quit writing for the public space? I imagine so. One of my understandings of my writing is that I perceive it as a relational experience. It’s a creative articulation that’s meant to engage with a broader audience (beyond self, i.e. journaling, or intimate personal relationship, i.e. letters or family/friends/lovers, etc.). I write because I’m engaging in a kind of relationship with a broader arena, and because I still have something to share/say/explore. There could come a time when I no longer want to share my ideas with a larger public. That said, I suspect that most artists/writers do have a compulsion “to make” something. This compulsion can be channeled and directed in different forms.
I’m an omnivorous writer. Or an amphibious writomnivore…. I write across, through, with different aspects of genre. I recently blogged about this, actually! (Here: it’s the November 6, 2010 entry).
I’m a generalist researcher. A forager. I read several online newspapers every day (i.e. Vancouver Sun, Globe and Mail, NY Times, LA Times, The Guardian, as well as visit news sites) as well as research topics specific to an area of interest for a particular story/novel. Site specific research is also necessary at times. For verisimilitude, etc. i.e. setting or occupations.
I began developing my professional writing path at the time my ex-partner was developing a landscaping company and we were raising young children. We had a mutual support structure, in order to develop our professions while raising a family. Along the way, I’ve taught writing workshops and picked up some freelance paying gigs, but my income primarily orbits my writing practice. I apply to provincial and federal arts councils for grants (in Canada), which is not a reliable source of income, and, in the past three years I’ve had the privilege to serve as a writer-in-residence at universities and a library. I’ll continue to apply for writer-in-residencies as well as apply for grants. Most writers’ annual income hovers around the poverty level… .
Poets have it waaaaay worse than fiction writers. It’s not a flush “lifestyle”. Basically, you really, really want to do this thing (writing) because on a financial level it can be rather stressful. Most of my writing friends are also teachers. This means they have more economic security, but less time to actually write. It’s not easy, either way. I guess the question is, ultimately, what is it that you need, in order to be able to write? Is a clear space for creativity necessary? Or, is the perpetual press of financial insecurity a creative damper that prevents you from writing anything at all? It’s about finding a balance that works for you. And, also, having a measure of flexibility.
My dream goal is a Danielle Steele mansion… . A dream project… ummm, I sometimes imagine I’d like to write a discrete lyric erotic novel, the kind that the French seem to get away with….
I began approaching writing as a serious practice (this does not mean the subject matter was all serious…) when I was twenty-two years old. I think I began publishing short stories in regional literary magazines a year and a half later. I took three consecutive full-year creative writing courses at the University of Calgary, and published my first novel one year after the completion of my last course.
We did not learn very much about structuring plot. But we were given room to stretch our thinking and our styles and, also, to understand social and political contexts in which our writing participated with/in/against. This had an enormous impact upon me as a writer and a thinker which ultimately affects how and what I write today. I can feel my lack of training in plot arise when my books are read or marketed toward genre venues. If you’re a writer who is intending to write in a specific genre, I think it’d be beneficial to review the structure of that form technically. In the same breath, I don’t think that writing workshops are de rigueur for all writers. Some writers, like Charles de Lint, are self-trained. This might be the best way for some people. It’s important to find the path that works the best for you.
I never thought I’d make money out of writing. I somehow eke out a living, and, honestly, I can’t really tell you how this has come to be. I’m more project-based, rather than career-based. I need to be excited about a project, be really passionate about it, in order for me to see it through. If it takes eight years, it will take eight years. If money was the motivating factor, I wouldn’t be writing because financially the rewards are few and far between.
Some of the exciting moments of my writing life: being awarded the James Tiptree Memorial Award and meeting Octavia E. Butler on the same day! Holding my first published novel in my hands and thinking, I wrote that. Being told by a reader, My life changed after I read this book.
An important artistic understanding that I have had is the idea that what I write matters a great deal, and, simultaneously, that it doesn’t matter at all. The nestling of these two seemingly dichotomous thoughts releases me from the restrictive contortions/confines of ego.
My writing career and motherhood began at the same time. When my children were young (birth to 3 yrs old) it was impossible to write, especially long-form fiction. I found this an extremely frustrating time, creatively, until I had a conversation with Sky Lee, who was one of the facilitators at a writing retreat. I asked her how she had balanced writing and parenting, because I was finding it extremely difficult. She said that writing was something we could do for a very long time, and that the children needed us to be attentive parents for a limited time. She said there would be time for writing, later, and to not stress about it. I took her words to heart and it released me from my frustration. Writers are not like, say, athletes. We’re not finished after the Olympics…. Our thinking and our skills should develop and stretch and grow throughout our lifetime (barring head injuries, illness, etc, of course!). Being able to take that into a kind of time-perspective relieved me of my conflict and enabled me to open up my creative process as one not based entirely upon what was placed on paper. I also garnered a great many short story ideas during the course of child-raising—experiences can become the substance of our creative written projects. Life is also a part of the writing process.
And, once both children entered elementary school, there was enough space/time to write it all down.
Marie Brennan is one of those people I know from the Internet, a writer I feel disposed to like well but, at the same time, someone whom I’ve never actually met in person. I first became aware of her because I’m a longtime fan of the SF Novelists blog, and her posts there on writing caught my eye. They’re accessible, smart, full of common-sense advice… and I constantly found myself sending the links to my students as optional readings. Check out this one, for example, on avoiding stereotypes with female characters.
Marie’s novel A Star Shall Fall, whose prologue is online here,
has been waiting so patiently on my to-read pile as I’ve finished up the process of reading student submissions for my Novel Writing II class. That day is fast approaching, and I’m looking forward to it immensely. In the meantime, I asked Marie to tell us about her life and her writing journey . . .
I am a creature of sunshine and warmth; living in the Bay Area for the last two years, I’ve gotten plenty of the former but not quite enough of the latter. Until recently, I was in grad school in Indiana, studying anthropology and folklore, but my undergrad degree was in archaeology—all of which fits together pretty well for a fantasy writer. My current enterprise, the Onyx Court, I’ve nicknamed “my home Ph.D in English history;” it’s a series of historical fantasies set in London, one in each century from the Elizabethan period onward.
One of the oddities that crops up behind the scenes of a writer’s life is that when people say, “what’s your last book?” or “what’s your next book?,” your answer is frequently out of step with the reader’s perspective. To my eyes, the current project is the one I’m writing, which is the Victorian-era installment of the Onyx Court. I’ve almost got a finished draft of that, and will be turning it in to my editor by the end of the month—but readers won’t see that one until late 2011. Conversely, I’ve half-forgotten about A Star Shall Fall, which hit the shelves on August 31st and is what everybody else would think of as “current.” That’s the third book in the series, set in the eighteenth century.
Like many kids—especially those who grow up to be writers—I know I started telling stories at an early age. I grew up in Texas, and pretty much spent the entire summer in the swimming pool; I would splash around in the deep end, doing god knows what, with my brain wholly bound up in some nebulous plotless make-believe world. One summer a woman who babysat me and my brother and two other kids we were friends with taught us how to make books, binding paper into fabric and cardboard, and I wrote an utterly terrible mystery story in mine (something about a girl named Jessica whose cat was stolen). But I can point to a very precise moment when it all crystallized: I was nine or ten years old, and I’d just read Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Fire and Hemlock, which (among other things) is about a girl and her friend who collaboratively make up and write down stories about a hero and his assistant. I put that book down and thought, I want to tell a story.
I meant, by that, not just to live in the make-believe worlds inside my head, but to put them down on paper so that other people could share them. I went back to the computer (we were a technologically precocious family) and started typing up ideas about a quest for the Silversword, about which I remember nothing except I think the Silversword was actually a magical plant. In fifth grade I went to a writing workshop; in sixth I wrote a story that was way longer than the teacher wanted for a class assignment; somewhere around that same time I chose my pen name, because even at that age I knew my legal name (Neuenschwander) was far too unwieldy for commercial use. Throughout junior high and early high school I wrote stories that I would have called fanfiction if I’d known the term; they started off as me inserting my own characters into books I loved, and then once I figured out the logistical problems with that I began filing off the serial numbers and trying to make my own versions of them instead. (Which doesn’t work too well, by the way, unless what you start with bears only a passing connection to your source material anyway.)
The next sea-change came at the end of high school, when I came up with two ideas that were new. Not other people’s stories with some modifications; they were my own invention, and I could tell right away there was something different about them. They were stronger ideas, more mature. I began playing around with them in my usual way—which basically consisted of writing whatever scenes came into my head, not necessarily in any kind of connected order—and then went away to college, where I joined the SF association’s writing group, and that gave me external encouragement to produce words on a regular basis. Both of the ideas grew, until I had a largish chunk of one of them, more solid and connected than pretty much anything I’d done before. I asked the group what they thought of it, and one guy told me he liked it, but he thought the pacing was screwed-up and the characters were underdeveloped, etc.
I had one of those little brainwaves, where you look past the obvious problem to see the root cause beneath it: what I’d handed them wasn’t the beginning of the book! It was some piece out of the middle. No wonder it had those problems. So the summer after my freshman year, I sat down to write a beginning. I made a list of everything I needed to introduce or explain properly, and I came up with scenes to take care of that, and I kept going until I’d finished the list and joined my new beginning to the old piece.
And at that point, I had half a novel.
What’s more, I knew what came next, and I couldn’t wait to write it. So I had no excuse not to finish: I kept up the discipline I’d developed while putting together the beginning, writing every day, and in October of 1999, I finished my first novel.
Which isn’t Doppelganger, the first book I published (later republished as Warrior). No, that first book hasn’t sold, though it’s come so close, I want to tear my hair out. Unfortunately, it falls in this awkward crack right between YA and adult, neither fish nor fowl, and after having that book in my head for a decade and more, I just can’t re-imagine it to the extent necessary to make it be one or the other. But remember how I had two new ideas as the end of high school? Doppelganger was the other one. I wrote it in the summer of 2000, after revising and submitting the first book, and that was a pattern I kept up all through college.
By the time I graduated, I’d written five novels and had them all out in the world, making the rounds of publishers and agents. It was my way of coping with the stress and uncertainty of submission: if I had multiple books in play, all my eggs weren’t in one basket, and I had something to distract me from the months and months of waiting to hear back. (Seriously, there were occasions where an editor took so long to respond, I’d written an entire new book in the interim.) When Doppelganger had exhausted almost all of its options, with one incredibly near miss along the way, I took a long shot and sent it to Warner Aspect, where it sold in late 2004. If you want the full story on that, and what happened after, I’ve got a multi-part essay up on my site that tells all about my experiences with publishing my first novel.
From the age of ten, when I knew I wanted to be a published writer, I never had any doubt that I would make it. Which wasn’t just hubris, at least not once I grew up and learned how publishing works; so much of the game is a matter of persistence, and that’s something that was totally under my control. I could only lose if I quit, and I wasn’t going to quit, so. I was still over the moon when I finally broke through—after so many years of slamming my head against the wall, I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it!—but I never wanted to stop. If it happens that my career falters, my books don’t sell well enough and I can’t get a publisher to take me on, I’ll switch names and come back as somebody new. It’s been done before, by authors who did very well indeed the second time around. The only thing that really scares me is the possibility that publishing might collapse to such an extent that I can no longer make any kind of living at it. But even then, I won’t stop telling stories; you’ll probably find me in the thick of the crowdfunding efforts, trying to find a way to make deals directly with my fans, and publishing my novels online.
Barring that one mystery story I wrote in my cloth-and-cardboard book, and maybe something I wrote for class in second grade, my books have all been fantasy. I suppose a few of my short stories have verged over onto horror—certainly they’ve been published in horror magazines—but it’s always been speculative horror. The closest I’ve come to non-genre writing is the material I wrote for a puzzle hunt game played by Microsoft interns each summer; my brother used to be one of the game’s captains, and he hired me (like, with actual money) to write the story framework and vignettes that held the puzzles together. Those weren’t always speculative, though some of them were.
My plan, from about late high school onward, was that I would teach at a college level and write books in my spare time—a perfectly respectable path, followed by many writers before me. Most of those people, though, don’t try to start both things at the same time. I sold my first novel when I was barely two years into graduate school; it came out right when I finished my Ph.D. coursework. This falls into the odd category of “inconvenient success;” I would never say that I wish I’d had to wait longer to break in, but it messed up my academic plans more than a little, because now writing wasn’t a hobby, it was a job, and one that demanded a surprising amount of my time. I’d written novels while in school, but I’d never dealt with the necessity of copy-edits and page proofs and promotion and all the rest of the work that goes with being an author. Then I started writing the Onyx Court series, which is just about as research-intensive as academic work, and in the meantime writing was earning me more money than grad school (not that that’s hard), so when my husband’s company went bankrupt and he was out of a job, we decided it was time for a change of plans. We moved to California, he got a new job, and now I write full-time.
Which isn’t as shiny as my readers may think. I have to be very careful about my social life: my default state is not to have one. I sit at home all day, and see my husband at night, and that’s about it. So we take karate classes (at a dojo that includes my brother and his wife, who’s one of the teachers), and I run a role-playing game for some friends each week, and I do various other things to get myself out of the house, because if I don’t, my mood tanks something fierce. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, but that doesn’t mean unrelenting solitude is good for me.
I’m hoping to start writing YA alongside my adult fiction. Either way, I really want to get back to writing something in a secondary world—an invented setting, rather than historical or modern—I miss the scale of invention that you get to do when you’re making everything up. With my background in anthropology, I really enjoy putting together different societies, exploring ways of life that aren’t like what my readers are used to.
One of the pleasant surprises about publishing . . . do you know how you can tax-deduct business expenses? (In the U.S., anyway; I don’t know about other countries’ tax codes.) Well, research is a business expense. And depending on what you’re doing, “research” can be a very broad thing indeed.
When I set out to write Midnight Never Come, the first Onyx Court book, I decided that even though money was tight, I really did need to go to London. The city has changed a lot since the Elizabethan period, of course, but the streets in the City of London, the central part, are still almost identical to the medieval layout, and there were places I knew would be showing up in the book that I wanted to visit. Then, once I’d bought my flights, it occurred to me that I might as well try contacting the staff at those places, to see whether I might be able to meet with someone to ask questions, etc. So I sent out some e-mails, and got a variety of helpful responses back, and pretty soon I had a schedule for my week in London.
I didn’t realize what a fabulous scheme I’d inadvertently put together.
Take the Tower of London, for example, which shows up in the Prologue of the book. I went to the security gate and told them I had an appointment. They called up to the offices, and the woman came down to fetch me. They clipped a badge onto me and let me in—for free!—and then I proceeded to get a personalized, guided tour of the bits I’d come to see, up to and including being let into parts of the Tower that aren’t even open to the public. At Hampton Court Palace, my guide took me up onto the roof; at Hardwick Hall, I went onto the roof again, to see the “banqueting rooms” in the little towers, which again aren’t open to visitors. Throughout it all, I was in the company of people with a deep knowledge of their subjects and a wonderful eagerness to share what they knew . . .
. . . and at the end of it, I got to tax-deduct the entire trip.
There are definite downsides to writing as a career—low pay, job uncertainty, isolation, RSI—but man, it has its perks.
How it feels now is a weird combination of amazing and routine. On the one hand, selling a book to a publisher, seeing my work on the shelves—it’s this rare and magical thing that never stops being shiny. On the other hand, a lot of my friends now are writers, so selling books to publishers and so on doesn’t seem rare at all. Everybody does that, right? But you know, I get to spend my time making things up and being paid for it. This is, quite literally, my childhood make-believe turned into a legitimate career. How can that not be awesome?