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.
Author Louise Marley, she of Mozart’s Blood (among other books), has interviewed me about writing, teaching, Indigo Springs and that build-a-car metaphor, here at The Red Room. Enjoy!
Louise Marley’s first novel, Sing the Light, was published in 1995, and was followed by two sequels, Sing the Warmth and Receive the Gift. She blogs at The Red Room.
I had the good fortune to discover her writing just after that, when I reviewed her astounding feminist SF novel The Terrorists of Irustan, which came out in 1999, for Scifi.com. After that, I jumped at the chance to read her other books. I said this about The Glass Harmonica in 2001:
The Glass Harmonica is a novel that will haunt readers long after they have moved on to less complex fare. . . it leaves me torn between the desire to reread immediately and the hunger for Marley’s next outing.
My feelings on that subject haven’t changed: Marley’s work is lyrical, deep and interesting and I can’t get enough of her.
At one time a singer with the Seattle Opera, she had a foot in two worlds for a number of years before retiring from music to write fulltime. I started our interview by asking about the shape of her life now, and got this response:
Like you, I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and a lot of the time it feels like the rainforest. I don’t sing professionally anymore, but I still love to do that, as well as practice yoga, play golf, and spend time with my Scottie. I teach for the Long Ridge Writers Group, and I write. It doesn’t seem like too much activity, but I’m always busy!
As I write this, I’m celebrating the publication of Mozart’s Blood (, which is officially out tomorrow, June 29th. This is a book that was perhaps the most fun to write of all my dozen novels. It covers four hundred years of history and music, and features a reluctant vampire who just happens to be an opera singer. I did research in Milan and in New York (touring the opera houses in those cities, and had a wonderful time with all of it. Now I’m at work on a similar book which features Brahms. Not vampire, but certainly paranormal. There will be three of these–the third will be either Puccini or Verdi. Detect a theme?
We use to say, in the world of singing, that if you could do something else you should go do it. I’ve had the experience twice now of a real compulsion to do something. I knew I wanted to sing at the age of five, and I never wavered. When the urge to write overtook me, I didn’t try to resist at all, although I didn’t expect to make a career out of it. I thought I needed a hobby! (I can hear you laughing, Alyx. Stop it.) It was when I was reading my first book aloud to my first writing class, and getting a positive response, that I realized writing was a great deal like singing: it’s a performance. I was hooked, and I’ve stayed that way.
I was always an science fiction and fantasy reader. I cut my teeth, as it were, on the Oz books–all eight of them, or whatever there were–and then graduated to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. I read everything I could get my hands on, like so many folks in our genre. I love fantasy and science fiction and all its little offshoots. The genre is drama at its most dramatic–a bit like opera, don’t you think?
I attended Clarion West in 1993, and it’s not putting too fine a point on it to say that in terms of my writing career, it was life changing. I had been studying writing, taking courses, meeting with a writer’s group, but the six weeks of Clarion crystallized everything for me. My class was a bit of a difficult one, I think, and a number of the attendees aren’t writing now. I can assure you no one that year thought that I would be the one to sell a bunch of novels. But everything I heard there, and the input from my classmates, made all the difference in my work. They were so talented! It’s a shame that some of them haven’t kept writing.
Sing the Light was in revision with my agent when I went to Clarion. I had just found him–as in just before the workshop began–but he made me rewrite three times before he thought the novel was ready to sell. Then he placed it in two weeks. Won my undying admiration!
For a while, after I retired from my musical endeavors, I just wrote. Now I teach as well, but I worry that some of my writing energy gets spent teaching. I’m sure that’s a concern for all writers. I’ve been able to keep up my output, so far, and I love teaching, so I suppose I’ll continue. The dream of an uninterrupted writing day is still that–a dream. I tend to have complicated days in which I do housework, walk the dog, take a yoga class or play golf, cook, teach–and somewhere in there I write. The one consistency is that I write every day, whether it’s half an hour or four hours. Every day.
I’ve had the same struggle in publishing that I did in my singing career: It’s hard for me to be businesslike about it. I loved singing so much! There was nothing more fun than putting on a long dress and my big earrings and going to stand in front of an orchestra. I adored the opera, the staging rehearsals, the collegiality, the costumes–all of it. It was hard to care whether the fee was a thousand dollars or a hundred dollars. I just loved doing it. Now, as a writer, I’m tempted down the same path. I love writing. I love creating a world, whether it’s a fantastical one or a science fictional one or a historical one. I adore learning what make characters tick (resonates with all those opera roles) and I invariably fall in love with the best ones. I’m incredibly fortunate to get paid for doing something so satisfying.
Naturally, human beings always want more. I’d like more success, and the money and security that come along with it. But I’m delighted to be a working writer, to be active in the business, to have editors recognize my name, and most of all–above everything else–to have acquired a readership. An audience. Bless their hearts, every single one of them!
Readers curious about Mozart’s Blood can find out more at Louise’s web site–the section about the novel features not only a Virtual Book Tour, musical suggestions, a list of ten discussion questions for book clubs. It also has a Book Club Party Kit, with suggestions for menus, costumes, music, and decorations! You can find her Facebook Fan page by searching for Louise Marley.
Some of you probably remember that I used to do a lot of book reviewing, for LOCUS, the site formerly known as SCIFI.COM, for the Internet Review of SF and Strange Horizons too. I have been doing quite a bit less of that lately. The reasons why aren’t that compelling, and I won’t go into them; they’re about time, and teaching, and a dozen other random things. At the same time, you’ve maybe noticed the range of books I’m talking about in my blog has expanded, to include the history books I hoover up like popcorn, the pop science and the mystery novels.
I have been wanting to get back into reviewing in a more structured way, while giving myself the freedom to pick books I want to read, about things I’m passionate about.
As I’ve been mulling over exactly how I want to do that, I’ve noticed a real hunger in the newer writers I teach, to understand the process by which unpublished writers develop into people with careers in publishing. I want to develop at least a partial answer to that question, for them and also to satisfy my own curiosity. Eventually I decided to marry these two goals–reviewing the books and finding out about the people who produce them–by doing a series of interviews called Journeys.
In Journeys, I am asking writers what got them started, and how long it took. I’m asking about the great revelatory moments in their development–not to mention the stumbling blocks. I’m asking about their upcoming books (which I will read and review, you see), their lives, their adventures in publishing, and anything else they might want to share about the road from newbie to seasoned pro.
I haven’t done much interviewing in years, not since my college newspaperman days, and I expect to stumble a few times before really getting this down. I’m glad to report that this hasn’t kept a number of writers from agreeing to be my test subjects. As a result, you can look forward to the first Journeys interview, with Louise Marley, in (at most!) a few days’ time. Louise has a historical novel about opera and vampires, Mozart’s Blood, coming out from Kensington Books tomorrow. She’s a great writer, I’ve been following her work avidly for over ten years and I’m really excited about talking to her here.