Lest you all think I am only interviewing veteran authors in this series, people well down the road and into their tenth, twelfth, and even twentieth novels, I’d like you to meet a fellow first time novelist: M.K. Hobson. Hobson and I have critiqued each other’s short stories, done readings together, and been an all-round mutual admiration society ever since Doug Lain (another writer whose first book should be out soon, incidentally) introduced us a few years back. She is witty, charming, a stunningly inventive writer, and great company. She ranks high on my personal list of Awesome People to Hang With.
Another random thing we have in common is that both of our novels feature dangerous mystical ooze!
With an intro like that, how can you not want to know more? Here’s The Greenman Review write-up of her novel, The Native Star. Her website is here, or you can look for her at Orycon this coming November. Alternately, see what she has to say for herself right here!
I am a mom and a wife and a writer and a self-employed businessperson and a history buff and a dog owner and a nap enthusiast. How much of any one of those things I am varies greatly depending on the given moment.
The Native Star is my debut novel, and it’s due to hit the shelves on August 31. It’s a historical fantasy romance set in an 1876 America where magic is an accepted part of society. It follows the adventures of Emily Edwards, a spunky timber-camp witch from California, and Dreadnought Stanton, a snooty New York City warlock with a past. They’re thrown together on a desperate race across the United States—by horse, train, and biomechanical flying machine—to unlock the secrets of a magical artifact that could change the course of history.
I started writing fiction quite early—as soon as I could string words and sentences together, really. I’ve always loved to read, and as everyone knows, reading is the gateway drug to writing. The books that were formative to my experience were the Little House on the Prairie Books, the Nancy Drew mysteries, the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, and all those horse books that Marguerite Henry wrote. I loved A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Koningsburg (it played a large part in the naming of my daughter Eleanor, actually.) In high school, I went through an anglophile phase in which I devoured Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde and Saki. (During this period I used to re-read A Christmas Carol religiously every December—it didn’t feel like Christmas unless I did.) Looking back on it now, I see that I resonated most strongly to books that took me back to an earlier era of history. I’ve always been fascinated by the way things used to be.
In high school, I was a drama geek. I took every theater class, helped out with every production. In drama class once, we were all working on scenes, and part of the assignment was to write a biography of the character we were playing—you know, as a way of getting into their head. I lavished huge amounts of time and detail on my character’s backstory. We had to get up and read them in front of the class. When I read mine, one classmate asked (with a hint of snark, as I recall): “What, are you going to be a writer?”
Instead of feeling humiliated or embarrassed, I felt a surge of joy. Someone thought that I could be a writer! That what I’d read sounded writerly! It was as if his comment gave me permission to think of myself as a writer (oh, high school) and after that moment, I did. “Writer” became part of my self-concept.
I’ve always integrated magical elements into my stories, because it made them more interesting. It gave me more to play with. It’s like, if you have a choice between the box of crayons with 16 colors or the box with 64 colors and the pencil sharpener built in—of course you want the bigger box! But I never thought of myself as a “genre” writer until I started trying to market my work. Then I realized that, in the eyes of the world, that’s what I was. (Of course, what exact “genre” I belong to remains to be seen, as my work scavanges tropes from most of them—romance, fantasy, thriller, historical, etc.)
Fiction writing has taken a back seat to other kinds of work these days, alas. With The Native Star coming out in August, and its sequel The Hidden Goddess coming out in May 2011, my focus has been on marketing. That takes a lot of time and creative energy. Three or four blog posts a day, tweets, giveaways, website maintenance, contacting reviewers, making up cool little cards and prizes and stuff … add that on top of a day job and family obligations and suddenly it’s past your bedtime and you still haven’t done a lick of fiction writing. Book promotion is a very insidious form of catwaxing, because it seems like you’re doing important work. But you’re not writing the next book. In any case, I’m not too worried about it. I do have about 30,000 words on a new novel that I’ll get back to once the crazy-time is over, and I have several more ideas in proposal stage that I’m excited to work on. I just relax and let it happen.
I committed myself to selling fiction shortly after my daughter was born in 1998. In the decade prior to that (the decade after I got out of college) I had been relying on Writer’s Market to find prospective markets. The problem with Writer’s Market was that it was only updated once a year, and the places you could be sure were still publishing (e.g., The New Yorker) weren’t going to have anything to do with you, while the smaller, more accessible markets might have already folded. I spent a lot of time sending stories into black holes. And in those days, when you wanted to query on a submission, it meant sending an actual letter, not shooting off a nice quick little email. People think it’s hard to break in today, but before the Internet it was way harder.
After my marriage and the birth of my daughter, I decided I needed to get some traction. There were starting to be some pretty good resources on the Internet. Using these, I found a writer’s group, then another. I found local writer friends who not only conviced me I had some talent, but helped me develop it. I adopted a new writing name, “M.K. Hobson.” My first pro sale in 2003 was—appropriately enough—to one of the premier online fiction markets of its day, Ellen Datlow’s SCI FICTION.
Writing meant giving up hobbies–even the idea of having hobbies. When people tell me they have hobbies, I stare at them blankly like they’re talking to me in Chinese. But I guess in some ways, writing is the ultimate hobby. It’s challenging, creative, and competitive. Would I like it if writing went from my avocation to my full-time vocation someday? Perhaps. But even if it never did, I’m still having fun.
The good surprises are, of course, the wonderful people I’ve met who share my passion for writing. It’s interesting, when I meet a person who is not a writer, I am often at a loss for what to talk to them about. What do people who are not writers talk about? I usually fall back on the Holy Trinity of chit-chat: kids, pets, and food.
The only bad surprise is one that is not unique to writing, one that life throws at you in innumerable circumstances: no matter what level of success you achieve, it will not be as great as you thought it was going to be. The success might be delicious, sweet, incredible … but at the end of the day, you’re still you, and the dishes still have to be done, and your toe still hurts from where you stubbed it, and the dog still has fleas. It really is about the journey, not about the destination—because you’re already at the destination. Who you are, and how comfortable you are with yourself, isn’t going to change based on a visit from the external validation fairy.
I’m entering a great time in my life, both personally and creatively. I’ve got a lot of hope and a lot of confidence. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens!
And a last word from Alyx: I’ve mentioned it before, but you really ought to check out The Native Star book trailer
Something that has come up in a couple of the Journey interviews I’ve been doing lately is this idea that many of us feel compelled to write: that many of us do it whether we think we can sell our fiction or not. And someone’s recently posted a comment asking what I mean by that.
In my case, it means I’ve felt a need to try to write stories since I became literate, at about the age of five. It means I can usually only go a few days without writing fiction before becoming first restless, then unhappy. At some point my writerbrain takes over and starts making up RPG scenarios or plotting novels. That, or I begin having elaborately plotted semi-lucid, occasionally bloodcurdling dreams.
It means I’ve never seriously considered not writing.
Since the question’s come up, I thought I’d throw it wider: fellow writers, do you feel, on some level, like you have to? Can you imagine stopping? If you had to stop–I’ve been meaning to ask this for awhile–how would you go about pursuing a happy, fulfilling, writing-free existence?
In the Eighties when Kelly and I were newly together, we took turns reading each other some of our favorite novels. I remember reading her To Kill a Mockingbird, sotto voce, on an Edmonton Transit bus route.
The first thing she read to me was Lincoln’s Dreams, by Connie Willis.
In those days I was working a night shift at a smoke-infested rathole that called itself an answering service, 11pm to 7am, and Kelly was at the U of A finishing her degree during the daylight hours, and we were seeing almost nothing of each other. Eating and wholesome newlywed sports activities were taking up much of the rest. But we got to the reading pretty regularly, and I was enjoying the book very much. And then one night, the impact of the novel just hit me. We were about three-quarters of the way in and things had started to take a turn for the dire. I called her up from the answering service, got her out of bed and said “I have to know how it ends.”
So she read it. For hours. On the phone. In the dead of night. With interruptions when oil rig guys called in or the 24-hour lawyer got the beep to go hand-hold some drunk driver through his breathalyzer test or someone’s burglar alarm went off and I had to send the cops. Kelly got hoarse, and then as things got sadder she got hoarser, and I was answering the phones with a catch in my voice. And then it was over, and K got to go bed, and I spent the night feeling hammered… in a good way.
It’s Connie’s first book, it’s one of my favorites, and she’s only gotten better at storytelling since then. If you want to see how it begins, I’ve posted its opener here.
Anyway. I could go on. I could tell you about the fabulousness of “Blued Moon,” which K also read me, or the gut-punch amazingness of “Fire Watch.” I could tell you about the hilarious antics the first time we met her at a con… and I will tell you that one, sometime in the not too distant. But this is a great interview, and I think we ought to get to it. So, with no further “Ado” (couldn’t resist) I give you Connie Willis:
Writers live essentially boring lives. If they lived exciting lives, they’d never get any writing done. I spend a lot of time at Starbucks and/or Margie’s Java Joint, and at the library, and my exciting project for the summer is cleaning out my basement, a job akin to cleaning out the Augean Stables. (People always laugh when I say this, but they have not seen my basement. I’ve been working on it for two months with no end in sight.)
The reason it’s such a mess and why the closets all need cleaning and the yard’s a disaster is that for the last eight years I’ve been working on a novel about time travel to World War II, which started out as one volume and then became three and then got squashed back to two–Blackout and All Clear. It is NOT a duology or whatever you call it. It’s one novel, and writing it just about killed me.
I am currently in recovery, working on assorted short stories, researching a comic novel about Roswell and UFOs, and reading all the books I didn’t have time to read before, like Jerome K. Jerome‘s Tales of an Idler and A Glastonbury Romance and Raintree Country, which I’m rereading. (It should always be read in the summer.)
Blackout-All Clear is about three Oxford time travelers who are researching different civilian parts of World War II in England–the rescue of the soldiers in Dunkirk by an armada of “little boats” manned by fishermen and retired sailors; the London Blitz; and the evacuated children, when things go spectacularly wrong for them and possibly for every other historian scattered across history.
I’ve been in love with World War II ever since my eighth-grade teacher read us Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, about a little girl who makes a garden in the rubble of a church bombed out during the Blitz. I wrote about it in “”Fire Watch” and “Jack” and “The Winds of Marble Arch”, but I wanted to write about it in depth, particularly about the civilian contributions to the war, which most people don’t know about.
One of my favorite stories about the Blitz is about an old woman pulled from the rubble. Thinking there might be others buried there with her, the rescue squad asked her, “Is your husband in there with you?”
“No,” she said, “the bloody coward’s at the front.”
I wanted to tell the stories of all those shopgirls, parlormaids, retired sailors, church ladies, mathematicians, and children who found themselves unexpectedly at the front–and essential to a war that couldn’t be won without them.
I can’t remember when I began writing stories, but I spent a good chunk of my childhood playing with my dolls and making up stories, swinging and making up stories, lying in the grass and making up stories, lying in bed and making up stor–well, you get the idea.
In sixth grade I was given a copy of Little Women, at which point I not only knew I wanted to be a writer, but which writer: Jo March, who sat in the garret with ink all over her fingers and scribbled and tied her manuscripts up with pink ribbon. After that there were Anne of Green Gables (also a writer) and Betsy of the Betsy-Tacy books (ditto), and I was headed toward a life of writing girls’ books when I picked up Have Space Suit, Will Travel and discovered the Wonderful World of Science Fiction.
Heinlein was of course my first love (he was my entire science-fiction generation’s first love), but it was the short stories I fell in love with. My library had all the Year’s Best collections, the ones edited by Judith Merril and Anthony Boucher and Robert P. Mills, and I read them from cover to cover–stories by Kit Reed and Fredric Brown and Philip K. Dick and Zenna Henderson and Ray Bradbury, “The Star” and “It’s a Good Life” and “The Cold Equations” and “Flowers for Algernon” and “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.” It was there that I got my first glimpse of how amazingly diverse and expansive the field was and of how many different types of stories and voices and styles there were and how many possibilities. I became convinced I could tell almost any kind of story I needed to in either science fiction or fantasy, and after all these years, I still feel that way. A field that can produce “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” and “Lot” and “Bernie the Faust” and “The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D” is clearly a place where anything is possible.
By the time I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to be a professional writer, though it never occurred to me I’d be able to make a living at it. My plan was to teach and write in the summers and on spring and Christmas breaks, a la Zenna Henderson. So I majored in elementary education at college, with an English major on the side (so I’d have an excuse to read lots of books), then got married, taught (and wrote) for two years, and then got pregnant, at which point I decided to stay at home with the baby and try to write full-time.
(Throughout all of this–and my entire career–I’ve had the support of my wonderful husband, for which I am very grateful. I never had the pressures so many of my writing friends have had of having to bring in that regular paycheck. As a result, I’ve been able to keep writing short stories, which I love, and to take years and years to finish my novels. (Doomsday Book took five, and Blackout-All Clear took eight.)
I’m lucky enough to be able to write full-time, which actually means I write when I’m not giving speeches, going to conventions, doing research, teaching writing workshops, talking to libraries and book clubs and assorted other groups, or writing introductions and blurbs for other writers. I occasionally manage to squeeze in a little real writing in there, and it’s better than trying to juggle writing with another job.
It wasn’t always this way. I subbed for a long time when I was getting started, worked for a nursery school, and ran a nursery school of my own. I was constantly frustrated because I couldn’t find the time to write, and I still am.
One thing I learned back in those subbing/teaching days was to take advantage of every free second. I had heard some writer say that unless you wrote for at least three hours straight, it wasn’t worth even sitting down. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, I’ll be eighty before I have a three-hour stretch.”
So I started carrying a notebook everywhere and writing whenever I had a few minutes: in the orthodontist’s waiting room, on the bleachers, in line at the post office. Ten or fifteen minutes isn’t long enough to write a story or even a scene, but it is long enough to do a paragraph of description or a conversation or a transition, or to jot down some notes about the plot.
To do this, you have to be ready to write, and whenever I was walking somewhere or doing dishes or driving a long distance, I’d think out the dialogue or scenes I was going to write the next time I had the chance.
I’d write my stories in dozens of little fifteen-minute pieces till I had enough to justify grabbing a whole afternoon to put them all together. I wrote “A Letter from the Clearys” and “Samaritan” and “Fire Watch” that way, and it’s a technique I still use.
I sold the first thing I ever sent out (an article in The Grade Teacher) and one of the first stories I submitted (a mainstream story to Ingenue called “The Villains of the Piece”), and two years later I sold my first science-fiction story, “Santa Titicaca”, to Worlds of If, which promptly went belly up. But it was nearly eight years before I began selling with any consistency, and during that period there were lots of discouraging moments and lots of rejection slips.
The one I particularly remember was the day I found a pink slip in my mailbox and, thinking it was a present from my grandmother, took it blithely up to the counter.
It wasn’t a present–it was the rejected manuscript of every single story I had out, I think eight stories in all. Always before when I got a rejection slip, I had been able to tell myself that that one hadn’t sold, but they were sure to buy this other story I had out. This time, there was no way I could do that. They’d rejected everything, and it seemed to me that somebody was trying to tell me something, and that this would be a really good time to give up.
Even worse than the rejection slips (and I don’t care what anyone says, it’s impossible not to take them personally), was the disapproval of friends and extended family (my immediate family has always been great) and their feeling that I was wasting my time and should get a “real” job. Best of all was the conversation that went like this:
“And what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh. Have you ever sold anything?”
I finally got so sick of having to say “no” (and of worrying about not contributing anything financially–one of our neighbors actually said, “How does your husband feel about your mooching off him like that?”) that I started writing stories for the confessions magazines. You know, like True Romance and Secrets and True Confessions. They not only paid good money and enabled me to say “Yes,” when people asked me if I’d ever sold anything, but they were fun to write, and they were a great place to practice all the techniques I needed to learn: dialogue, flashbacks, story arcs, character, and setting.
But what I really wanted to write (and did write–the stories just weren’t selling) was science fiction. I think it’s really true that every author has to write a hundred thousand words of junk before they get to be any good, and I spent those eight years doing just that, from confessions like, “While My Husband Took the Kids to Church, We Prayed We Wouldn’t Get Caught” to a modern Gothic novel (also never sold) to lots of science fiction stories.
It wasn’t all grim, though. I was paying the insurance payment and the gas bill with “I Called for Help on My CB–And Got a Rapist Instead!” and “A Boyfriend for Grandma”, my grandmother loved what I was writing, and in 1976, I was put in touch with Ed Bryant’s writing workshop and found a group of kindred spirits–Cynthia Felice, Pete Alterman, John Stith, and Ed Bryant. They introduced me to the wonderful world of science fiction conventions, to dozens of other authors, and to the week-long Milford writing conferences, which Ed was running then at various places in the Colorado mountains, and at which I met wonderful writers like Carol Emshwiller, David Gerrold, Dave Skal, and George R.R. Martin.
I never went to Clarion. Those Milfords and the Southern Colorado Workshop were my Clarion, and they changed everything for me. They connected me to what was going on in the field, corrected all my horrible writing mistakes–“Your narrator sounds just like Shirley Temple,” Ed told me during one of my first critiques–and best, of all, didn’t think there was anything peculiar about my wanting to be a professional writer. Every writer needs a group like that, whether it’s Clarion or a local workshop or one you belong to on-line. Writing is a solo business, but being a writer isn’t, and it’s almost impossible to keep going on your own through the discouraging and self-doubting times. (Which I still have. During the last few months of writing Blackout-All Clear, when I was convinced I was never going to finish it, and when I did finish it, it was going to be dreck, I was on the phone to those same people I met during those early years. They’re your comrades in arms, the band of brothers you’ve got to have to survive as a writer.)
My advice for being a writer is simple. Don’t give up, even if all eight of your manuscripts come back on the same day and all your friends are saying you should get a job. Every writer has these moments–Faulkner painted his whole den with rejection slips, Frank Herbert wrote four unnoticed novels before Dune, Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter for ten years before becoming Han Solo. Anything worth doing is worth going through a little anguish for.
My advice for the writing itself? Write what you want to, not what’s currently hot or what you think will be the Next Big Thing. That never works, and besides, if you became a writer because you wanted to become rich and famous, you should have picked another career. Writing is far too difficult to do it for any reason other than that you love it. My favorite thing in the world is writing romantic comedies. They didn’t exist either in science fiction or in the confessions magazines, but I wrote them anyway, and they were the first things that sold, mostly because I had such a good time writing them.
But I would also have written them even if nobody had ever bought them, and that’s the key.
Write what you love. Period.
A couple weeks ago in my intro to “A Key to the Illuminated Heretic,” I mentioned reading Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. I cannot even begin to say how much I loved that book. It was a bleeping revelation. It had Abraham Lincoln alive and well and agitating for labour reform, and Samuel Clemens writing scorching editorials in San Francisco and . . . well, everything Harry Turtledove says about Lest Darkness Fall, below—for me, How Few Remain was that book.
photo by Brent Small
I eased into this interview, as usual, by asking Harry for some general biographical information and about current writing projects before circling round to questions about his career, and how he got into the alternate history genre:
I’m 61 now, a scientist–most likely an astronomer–by original intention, but flunking out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year killed that dead. Ended up at UCLA, and got a doctorate, Lord help me, in Byzantine history. It’s Sprague de Camp’s fault. With an interest in science came an interest in SF, his not least among it. When I read Lest Darkness Fall, I started trying to find out how much he was making up and how much was real (not much and most, respectively), and I got hooked. Acquired ancient Greek and research skills, both of which have come in handy in various ways since.
When I got the degree, academic jobs were few and far between. I had a choice: do the university mercenary thing and move every year or two till I landed something tenure-track, if I ever did, or get a real job. So I parlayed (a fancy word for scammed) my degree and my few fiction sales into a tech-writing job at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. I was a hired keyboard: test-item writer, proposal writer, newsletter writer, copy editor, even emergency pasteup guy back at the tag end of the days when you really used rubber cement. Spent 11-1/2 years there, writing fiction on the side (and at my desk when things were slow–writing looks like writing, which is, mm, convenient).
Met Laura Frankos in 1978, married her in 1980. My second marriage, her first, and it seems to have stuck; we celebrated our 30th anniversary last month. We’ve got three girls, one in grad school, one married, one still an undergrad. No grandkids yet. Laura still writes as Frankos. She’s published a mystery novel, about a dozen sf and fantasy shorts, and has a Broadway musicals quiz book coming out from Applause this fall. We are each other’s first readers and editors, and if that doesn’t prove we get along well nothing ever will.
Coming out from Del Rey just about the time I write this is the second book of The War that Came Early series, which is called West and East (in fact, as I’m reviewing this copy UPS has brought a box of author copies to the door). This is a world where Munich failed and WW2 began over Czechoslovakia in 1938 rather than Poland in 1939, which makes for a very different-looking conflict for all kinds of reasons. I’ve also got a collection, Atlantis and Other Places, coming out from Roc at the end of the year; I’m currently procrastinating about the page proofs, but I’ll get ’em done. And I’m working on a series about what might happen if the supervolcano under Yellowstone goes off in the near future. Not surprisingly, the series is called Supervolcano; the working title for the first one is Eruption. And, since I was GoH at a con in Missoula Memorial Day weekend, I had the chance to rent a car, drive down to Yellowstone, and see what I’ll be destroying while it’s still here.
I started writing stuff when I was 8 or 9 years old, back in the 1950s. It was pretty good for 8 or 9, which of course means it was crap. First attempted an sf novel when I was maybe 13; two years later, I began the first one I finished. That was also crap, naturally, though on a higher level technically. Basically, I’d write a novel every summer till I got into grad school, where for about 5 years I wrote history instead (a different kind of fiction, some would say). Took up fiction again, more seriously, in my mid-20s, not least out of frustration with the way my thesis was going. Redid something I’d worked on before the hiatus, and that eventually became the first novel that sold (published in two parts, Wereblood and Werenight, by Belmont-Tower in 1979, as by Eric Iverson–they said no one would believe Turtledove, which is my real name). Started The Videssos Cycle in 1979, not knowing it would be four books–I would have been too intimidated to try it if I had, I think. Finished it in 1983, sold it to Del Rey in 1985. I’d sold some short fiction before then, and began selling it fairly regularly in about 1984.
I would have been maybe 26 when I picked up fiction again after putting it aside to dive into the late 6th century. I made my first sale at 28–short fiction (but the magazine died before the piece came out [sigh]). First novel saw print just before my 30th birthday. I started thinking of myself as a pro–someone who counted on writing income instead of treating it as found money–at 34 (Laura and I needed something, and we didn’t have the cash for it. I said, “Well, let’s wait till I sell another story, and we’ll get it then.” She gave me this look–you know the kind I mean. But a couple of weeks later Stan Schmidt bought a novelette, and we got whatever the heck it was.). I was 42–the answer to everything–when I left LACOE and went fulltime freelance, and I’ve been at it ever since.
Plainly, I have a jones. I’m not as obsessive-compulsive about it as I used to be, but I still write a lot. How can I do anything else?
Writers who sucked me in? Norton, Heinlein, de Camp, Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, Gore Vidal, Clarke, Asimov, Beam Piper, Sturgeon. A little later, Delany and Zelazny. I could name lots more, but those’ll do for starters.
I write in a number of genres. I’ve written several straight historical novels, both under my own name and as by H.N. Turteltaub, which was the family name before my grandfather anglicized it. I write mainstream fiction very occasionally, and even sell it every once in a while.
I stayed with the tech-writing job at LACOE till (a) I sold Guns of the South, and (b) they were going to reassign me to doing a bunch of stuff I couldn’t stand. After that, well, I had a couple of years’ income saved up, I had the Worldwar project in mind (I’d had it in mind for many years, but now was the time to write it)–if I wasn’t going to do it then, when was I? So in mid-1991 I quit, and (knocking wood) I’ve been telling lies for a living ever since. It’s been fiction all the way, pretty much; I have a couple of nonfiction projects on the back burner, but I don’t know if they’ll ever move up and get done. I’ve worked hard, and I know damn well I’ve been very lucky with the writing and in my life. You need both.
For some reason, I haven’t heard from the Nobel committee yet, nor am I holding my breath. Hey, Doris Lessing made it! I don’t like to talk about what I haven’t done yet, for fear of either weakening the inspiration or jinxing it.
The first breakthrough, obviously, is getting to the level where someone will pay you cash money for words you crank out. After that, you ask yourself and your characters harder questions. Pieces where I’ve really felt myself growing as a writer include The Videssos Cycle, Guns of the South, Ruled Brittania, and the recent short story “We Haven’t Got There Yet” on tor.com. Having that “Wow! I didn’t know I could do that!” feeling is mighty nice, as you’ll understand.
The worst surprise that came with publishing, I think, was some of the bad copyediting. I’ve had a c/e “correct” the King James Bible. I thought that was an all-time untouchable record, but I’ve seen it tied: another c/e “corrected” Shakespeare for me. I’ve had a c/e–wrongly–“correct” a language I invented. For that and other reasons, I asked not to have that c/e work with me any more, but s/he did, due to a publisher’s slipup, and–wrongly–“corrected” another language I invented. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Another imperfectly welcome surprise is how I read nowadays. I can’t enjoy most fiction the way I could before I turned into a writer; I read much more analytically and I’m much harder to satisfy. I read more nonfiction now, partly as research and partly because I don’t tear it to pieces in my head in quite the same way.
Without a doubt, the best of the business is the people. I’ve met and made friends with people I was reading for a million years before I got into the racket myself. Some of them have been to my house. If I had told my twenty-something self that that would happen, that self would have gone “Yeah, sure!” (they didn’t say “Yeah, right!” back then). But it’s true, and it’s great. And my best friends in the field are some of the ones who came up at the same time I did, more or less. Now, increasingly, the writers seem younger, but they’re still interesting people.
Writing is great. Beats the hell out of working for a living. I’ve done that. No fun at all.
Kay Kenyon sold her first novel, The Seeds of Time, in 1997 and followed it with six stand-alone novels (including Maximum Ice and The Braided World, which I reviewed for Locus), before embarking on the four-part sci-fantasy series The Entire and The Rose.
The latest installment in this series, Prince of Storms, was released in trade paperback July 1st. The lead title, Bright of the Sky, was one of Publishers Weekly’s top books of 2007. The series has twice been shortlisted for the American Library Association Reading List awards. Kay will sign books with Louise Marley at U Book Store in Seattle on August 5.
I began by asking Kay to tell us something about herself and this series:
I write novels. I am on my 12 or 13th novel. Funny how you always think you’ll know how many you’ve got, but after awhile they blur. I am a compulsive writer. I don’t know if I’m a writer because I’m compulsive or the other way around.
In an effort to have a more normal life (marriage and housekeeping for a large, awfully picky cat still doesn’t do it) I started a writing conference and organization, and I pour a lot of energy into that. Write on the River is a May literary conference and year-round writers’ organization for Eastern Washington. It gets me away from the keyboard and helps me connect with real carbon-based units. Other than these things, I play golf, keep a fanatical rose garden (don’t ask) and raise asparagus and raspberries and assorted edibles.
Most recently, I have written a series called The Entire and The Rose. It’s about two universes, one of which thinks it’s the only one (thus “the Entire”). The other–ours–is named after a flower.
I call the series sci-fantasy because it is science fiction with a fantasy feel. The universe where most of the action takes place has a seamless interface between advanced technology and the natural environment, making the rules of the world appear almost magical. It is also a quest story, so that gives the series a fantasy pace and framework.
This series, a quartet of stories, has received by far the best reviews of my career. I am grateful but confused by this. Did I finally figure out what people really want to read, or did I lurch forward into some master-space where I suddenly knew how to turn a phrase and give people fever dreams? I don’t know. The last book of the series, Prince of Storms just came out in trade paper. Also, all the books so far have been Endeavour Award nominees.
I have been writing for a living almost my whole life, but not always, alas, fiction. I’ve had a bunch of jobs writing TV and radio commercials, press releases, technical documents, and newsletters. Then I hit a big decade birthday and decided that I’d wasted enough time writing technical stuff and ad copy, and asked myself if I wanted to end up at the end of my life having only written totally lame things.
So I scared myself into writing a novel. I launched immediately into the project–because honestly, how hard could it be?–and then failed to sell the thing. After that, I started to go to writers’ conferences and study with pros. My next book was The Seeds of Time, and it sold 30,000 copies, which I was told was pretty good for a newcomer. So I was a fast learner.
(Yeah, I am ducking saying how old I am. But I’ve been selling novels for almost fifteen years.)
You seldom support yourself with writing fiction. That’s the truth, as unwelcome as it may be. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to have a high-paying job anymore. My husband indulges my pursuit of stories.
I couldn’t quit writing and be happy. As I said, I am a compulsive writer. There’s a reason for the compulsion: fiction writing is a singular and amazing rush, a monumentally satisfying pleasure, the most fascinating interaction with one’s own mind and the minds of readers–who are willingly entering into your fictive creation and believing it. And I would want to sell life insurance why?
Fantasy and science fiction have always been my playground. Paranormal, a touch of horror, the usual ancillary fields also compel me. I’m so glad you didn’t ask why I write in this genre–because I’ve answered that question a hundred ways and never been totally convinced I had any idea what I was talking about.
It took me about eight years to break into publishing. I wrote that unpublishable novel that I mentioned, and then spent a few more years writing a 150,000 word novel that did sell, but only after being passed on by most of the big houses before being picked up by Bantam. My commitment to writing was fierce in those days. (These days I’m less fanatical.) Nothing was going to stop me.
I must admit that breaking in was a harrowing experience. I had almost given up hope when my agent called to announce the sale: “They want your book, and it’s a two book deal, so I hope you’re got another one.” Looking back, this must have been the most ecstatic day of my life. Eight years is a long time to wait.
I was bowled over by the generosity of other writers. I expected the world of authors to be a clique of sorts, and I ended up making deep friendships that mean the world to me. So that was a big surprise. I wasn’t in it for the people, but I might almost say that that is the main thing I got. I mean, I’ve had ferocious ups and downs career-wise, but my friendships in the industry have been steady. I also was pleasantly surprised by the relationship with my agent, Donald Maass. He has taken a strong hand in guiding my career and been a valuable collaborator on story concepts.
A more unpleasant surprise: I didn’t expect that my novels would end up being seriously dark. My darkest stories didn’t find a wide readership. I had to look carefully at the darkness and let a little light in.
I think that those who say “you must always write what’s in your heart” are a little dreamy in their focus. Since this is a topic that often generates argument, let me explain. “Heart” is not different from “mind,” for starters. If by “heart” we mean emotional truth, well that is processed through the mind, and is naturally laced with strands of logic and experience. So there is no sacred place from which our stories spring that is other than our minds.
Once we’re off the high horse of “heart,” we can look at the issue as how much the writer should be influenced by the marketplace. I think it must be a mix. I’d argue, not so much for the marketplace (which sounds like following fads), but for writing the most entertaining story you can wrestle out of yourself. That means analyzing your premise, milieu, and plot to see if it can reach a wider audience. A little adjustment–or even a big one–can teach us to be more flexible and inventive. And our careers tend to be longer.
Now it feels like I am sailing just above the fray. That is, I’ve weathered so much, and I have come to a point of mastery that is the highest I can claim. I know that sounds conceited, but all I mean is, this is my best dance. The words spill out, the scenes flood my mind, the books blossom. Even if they don’t take the world by storm (although I think my next one will!) I am entranced, seduced, happy. Whatever happens.
Kay Kenyon can be found on the web at her official site, Writing the World, on Facebook, and, finally, on Twitter. There’s also a terrific review of Prince of Storms here.