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?
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.