Catharsis and compulsion — an interview with Elizabeth Bear
I recently had the opportunity to interview award-winning author, Elizabeth Bear. It was a remarkably challenging and candid interview — much, one imagines, like the writer herself, who displayed a marked disinclination to whitewash the truth or tell comforting lies.
She is the author of more than twenty published novels and a long list of short fiction — all in the span of six years — winning multiple awards along the way. She was gracious enough in October to agree to this interview, which was conducted this week.
I think I need say no more, because Ms. Bear (as you will see) shows great honesty and eloquence in speaking for herself.
sffchronicles: You’re such a prolific writer, and it seems there is hardly a subgenre of speculative fiction you haven’t covered. As someone who is not prolific at all, I have to ask you: how do you manage to accomplish so much?
Elizabeth Bear: I like to eat. So I write for eight or ten hours a day.
sffchronicles: Is there a genre you haven’t explored yet — and want to?
Elizabeth Bear: I tend to think of the various subgenres within SFF as marketing categories, and not worry about them too much. I think of what I write as speculative fiction, in general, and don’t feel too much need to fuss about which box it goes into — as long as I can invent a coherent and cohesive reality that can enfold the various characteristics of what I want to write about.
sffchronicles: So you have no secret desire to write, say … a “cozy” mystery, a thriller, or a historical romance?
Elizabeth Bear: Sarah Monette and I wrote a young adult historical mystery that’s out on submission. As of this writing, no nibbles yet.
I tend to incorporate a lot of thriller and caper and mystery plots into my SFF novels, actually. Sadly — if the way I write relationships wasn’t already a clue — I do not have the romance gene, and never have, so no urge there.
It’s a shame that I can’t stir up any passion for it, because there’s a thriving community of readers there.
I write, in general, what I am passionate about writing. This has probably been detrimental to my career in the long run, as I’m pretty sure I would be selling more books if I had kept writing novels about Jenny Casey twice a year. But … her story was done. I needed to tell a different story.
Which probably means that I write out of trauma and catharsis and compulsion, which will shock nobody who knows me or who has read one of my books.
sffchronicles: Could you tell us a little about your thought process in combining such diverse elements as fantasy, alternate history, detective fiction, and a bit of steampunk, to arrive at a story like New Amsterdam and its sequels?
Elizabeth Bear:I was inspired by Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, but I wanted to do something a bit less monarchistic. I loved the idea of forensic sorcery, and as for steampunk … well, I’ve been writing stuff that could be called steampunk since the mid 1990s, when I was inventing the world that All the Windwracked Stars, et al, take place in. I suspect it’s the early childhood influence of The Dark Crystal, Thundarr the Barbarian, and too much Dying Earth and Virconium and Andre Norton.
sffchronicles: You have collaborated on two books with Sarah Monette and I understand there is at least one more to come — what is the collaboration process like for the two of you? Do you switch off chapters? Take turns writing and then editing each other’s work? Or is it something simpler or more complex than either of those?
Elizabeth Bear: We’ve actually written three books together, one of which is unsold, and a bunch of shorts … and we are working on a fourth novel.
Basically, one of us writes until she gets bored. Then the other one edits the first one’s work and writes until she gets bored. Lather, rinse, repeat. She makes my sentences be linear, I take out her adjectives. She adds secondary characters; I argue with her about them. I write sloppy plot outlines; she argues with me about them.
Sooner or later, a book!
sffchronicles: Fantasy has eclipsed Science Fiction in popularity. As someone who has written in both genres, do you have any ideas on why? And do you think the pendulum will swing the other way?
Elizabeth Bear: I don’t see them as radically different things, frankly, although there’s certainly a lot of posturing in the genre as to which is superior to the other. I suppose if it makes people feel better to parade their insecurities that way, more power to them.
I think SF has in some ways dug its own grave. At the higher end — the end that gets awards and critical notice — it’s become an incredibly self-referential and history-steeped genre with nearly impenetrable reading protocols. We reward incomprehensibility and inside baseball, basically, and that is, well, very offputting to readers who do not come in steeped with a hundred years of genre background and able to pick up and parse a stream of complicated, unexposited ideas in the first ten pages.
It’s improv jazz, basically. And there’s nothing wrong with improv jazz–it’s a high art!–but it’s not the sort of thing that any guy wandering in off the street is going to hear as anything but noise.
Of course, I say this as somebody whose contemporary fantasies are famously impene- trable …
sffchronicles: Twenty years ago, the perception was that SF was, essentially, a genre written for and dominated by men, while Fantasy was more likely to be written by and for women (with unicorns on the cover!). Now, many people consider Fantasy a genre whose appeal is mainly to men or boys. People who are not very familiar with the genre often express surprise that any women are reading it at all. When and how do you think this shift in the way people regard the two genres came about? And how do you explain to those who cherish these ideas where it is that they make their mistake?
Elizabeth Bear: I don’t know if that characterization of what people used to think and what they think now is accurate. It seems to me that most of the fantasy I read growing up was very firmly aimed at a male audience — which is not to say I didn’t love some of it, because I have read Nine Princes in Amber so many times that I can quote passages verbatim — but The Lord of the Rings? A chick book?
Not so much.
I think it’s more that people were shocked that women were interested in reading or watching either, let alone writing it. Never mind the commonplace hordes of female fans of Star Trek, of Harry Potter, of Lois McMaster Bujold, of … there’s a stereotype that women only like nerdy stuff if our boyfriends are interested in it.
I’m not sure where that leaves all the Lesbian fans I know …
In the modern era, where nerd girls abound — and possibly outnumber nerd boys, quite frankly: I’ve seen my tabletop roleplaying groups go from being me-as-the-only-girl-in-the-game to gender parity to women often outnumbering men–well, I don’t bother arguing with people who are stupid about gender.
I have books to write, and arguing with people who don’t understand that girls like space ships and swordfights is a waste of my time.
sffchronicles: Perhaps this determination not to waste your time on nonsense answers my first question. Are you always this practical? Or do you have any guilty pleasures as far as reading is concerned?
Elizabeth Bear: Yep, sexism is rampant in a significant portion of the readership for science fiction and fantasy. Since the readership are the ones with the economic pull, this affects my career rather a lot. Railing about it changes nothing: writing books that may accidentally convert somebody who is determined that female authors have nothing to offer might.
So yes, I guess I am … practical. Or possibly sort of famously easily bored by pointless arguments.
I don’t really consider anything I read particularly guilty. I read a lot of mysteries: some are better than others. I try to read as widely as possible, in and out of genre, and that includes everything from Charlaine Harris to Umberto Eco. Not all of what I read is to my taste, but every book published is somebody’s labor of love.
Which doesn’t mean I can’t be highly critical, but I’m also aware that my taste is not universal.
sffchronicles: What do you think are some of special problems — or perhaps I should say challenges — faced by SF and Fantasy writers: that is, problems peculiar to speculative fiction? How are the challenges in writing good Fantasy different from the problems in writing good SF (and vice versa).
Elizabeth Bear: I think they’re the same problems. You have to extrapolate changes in the world and how they affect society and technology. You have to find ways to exposit those changes without being stultifying. And you have to create believable characters who may be completely alien to the reader’s perceptions, whether they’re dragons or Klingons or hyperintelligent shades of the colour blue.
sffchronicles: Several years ago, a well-known SF writer, who shall remain nameless here, caused quite a fuss by saying that the problem with Fantasy was that it lacked rigor. You have said that you are a very rigorous writer and create logical structures for your books. Could you expand on this, and what would you say to that writer if he were part of our conversation?
Elizabeth Bear: What is the sound of one eye rolling?
This nonsense about fantasy being “where you can just make anything up” gets repeated a lot, and it’s a little more ignorant every time it’s said than the last time.
I think if any of the people who mouth that particular bit of tripe were to sit down and try to write a good historical fantasy, or a bit of mythography with the scope of, say, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and have it not suck, they’d figure out pretty fast that they had said something kind of dumb.
Of course there’s crappy, ill-thought-out fantasy. There’s plenty of crappy, ill-thought-out science fiction, too.
But again, I have no time for arguing with people who are reasoning out of ego-defense rather than observation and experience. People talk ****. I’m busy.
sffchronicles: In a number of your books, there is a link between sex and pain, especially when it is sex between men. What is the fascination and/or what does this symbolize for you?
Elizabeth Bear: I’m not sure that I agree with the premise of this question.
I mean, “Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.”
I’m having a hard time thinking of examples. I certainly write a lot of crappy or complex or just plain screwed up relationships, and I can think of a couple of scenes where there’s a painful element to sex. There’s a nonconsensual erotic asphyxiation scene in By the Mountain Bound which is one of the most awful things I ever wrote. The rape scene in Ink and Steel is the other one. But those are both far more about violence and power than sex.
And there’s a character in the Promethean Age stories who has an erotic response to pain… but those are both heterosexual. And I’m not getting the sense that you’re talking about a character who happens to have a pain kink.
I’ve certainly written some sex scenes where the characters are not gentle with one another, for whatever reasons they may have.
Unless you’re alluding to the deeply unpleasant gang-bang scenes in A Companion to Wolves? If that’s what you’re after, the answer is simple: Sarah and I were taking the piss out of the animal-companion-mediated-fantastic-lifechanging-sex scenes that appear in a bunch of companion animal fantasies (probably originating in Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels, and there including some stuff that’s actually pretty plainly rape if you actually look at it without the gloss the narrative throws over it).
Apparently some people find those infamous sex scenes erotic. Every reader gets to own their own book, but I admit … that’s not my take on what’s going on there. Your kink is fine, I guess I’m saying … but that’s not my kink.
But I rarely write sex scenes to be “hot.” I am the despair of my romance-writing friends. So I’m always a little surprised when people find one of them to be erotic.
Healthy, uncomplicated relationships don’t add any conflict to a narrative, so for me there’s not much point in writing them unless you’re going to use them to jerk a character around somehow. Barbara Hambly is a mistress of this: she’s about the only writer I can think of who writes relationships I’d like to have. And then she uses those relationships to cause her characters horrible pain and drive the plot.
I don’t have the knack of that, and since I mostly write stories about horribly traumatized people desperately trying to (a) save the world and (b) save their own souls … most of their relationships are pretty awkward and weird and soul-scarring. And sometimes downright abusive.
But then. I also don’t write to model appropriate behavior or preach what I think the world should be like. I suspect I write as a long, horrified wail of denial over my basic existential despair.
I have written one healthy relationship, I think. It’s in Whiskey and Water.
sffchronicles: Yes, those scenes in A Companion to Wolves certainly were unpleasant, even disturbing, and I did think at the time that they were the anti-Pern. But would it be fair to assume that you didn’t write the entire book as a commentary on other animal-companion-fantasies?
Elizabeth Bear: We wrote the book in response to some tropes we found problematic in certain other companion animal fantasies, and because we wanted to explore some pretty profound issues we had with some generally unquestioned gender roles in fantastic fiction, and also because we were having fun and enjoying telling an adventure story about a pretty neat character.
sffchronicles: I found the prose in The Sea Thy Mistress more poetic than in any of your previous work (and admired it very much!), excepting passages where you describe the Medb in Ink and Steel. You have said that you were born a natural poet but that novel writing is what you do well. Do you feel as if your prose has undergone a sea-change, or was it simply the style you felt most appropriate to that particular story?
Elizabeth Bear: I’m grateful that it struck you that way, although on a bad day I would find that kind of depressing, since The Sea Thy Mistress was the second novel I ever finished!
I had kind of hoped I’d gotten better since 2002, but apparently I’ve regressed. Ah well, do better next time.
sffchronicles: Maybe it just means that you’ve become more focused on novel writing when you are writing a novel than you were back then.
Elizabeth Bear: Unlikely, since I have been concentrating very hard on my prose — among other things — for the past ten years or so. I think good prose is essential to good writing — as essential as a strong narrative, and interesting character development, and a coherent and intricate thematic arc, and plenty of cool stuff.
Regarding being a natural poet but a good novelist, I’m not sure that’s what I said, or if it’s what I said it’s not what I meant.
I was never able to write narratives until I was in my mid twenties: I could write vignettes or poems, but these things with beginning, middle, and end didn’t start happening until I had been trying for years and years. Eventually some sort of penny dropped for me, and I managed to start writing short stories.
I didn’t finish a novel until I was thirty. And about the time I started being able to write short stories, I stopped being able to write poetry.
It’s been a source of significant excitement to me that in the last few years apparently I’m managing to do both, though it’s one or two poems a year these days, rather than one or two a month.
I missed writing poetry.
sffchronicles: What do you think you might have meant?
Elizabeth Bear: What I may have said was that I was basically a lousy poet, so I turned to narrative writing in desperation. Or words to that effect.
I’m terrified that I will never amount to more than a mediocre writer. It’s the thing that keeps me fussing over commas late into the night.
sffchronicles: Reading All the Windwracked Stars (I love that title), it was very clear that the book began midway through Muire’s story. The prequel By the Mountain Bound came out so soon after, it seems that BTMB must have been at least in progress while ATWS was in production. Which of the two was actually written first and whichever it was, why did you write and publish them in that particular order.
Elizabeth Bear: Those books were actually written in 2001 and 2002, although they weren’t published until nearly ten years later. All the Windwracked Stars was my first completed novel and has been extensively rewritten. The Sea Thy Mistress was written second and while it was expanded significantly and edited rather a lot, pretty much kept its plot and structure intact — which All the Windwracked Stars did not. AtWS kept its thematic and character arcs, but the plot was a total rip and replace, and it started off as a single-narrator first-person story.
By the Mountain Bound was written third. It has not actually changed all that much since day one: I wrote it in less than a month, and it’s been polished and the prose has been heavily revised and the structure tweaked some, but the plot and thematic arc stayed intact, and the characters.
sffchronicles: As a reader, what makes you reluctant to keep reading?
Elizabeth Bear: Boredom. Inconsistent characterization. Idiot plots. Stupid characters. Bad writing. Insufficient detail. Too much detail. Bad sensory description. Humorlessness. Seriousness. Polemics. Not enough happening … I could go on for weeks.
I’m an absolute nightmare of a reader. In the last ten years, I think I’ve read exactly *one* book that I would not change a thing about. (Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl: a Memoir, which comes out next year and everybody should read it because it’s a freaking masterpiece.)
My friends have learned not to ask my opinion of their books unless they actually want to know.
sffchronicles: What would you like to see more of in the Fantasy genre? In the SF genre?
Elizabeth Bear: Unmitigated brilliance. But since I sure as hell can’t hand that in every time, it’s pretty unfair to ask it of everybody else. We all want to be Mozart, after all. We’re all doing our level best to write books that we hope will be works of genius.
If it were easy to control, we’d all be doing it.
sffchronicles: Many writers started out telling themselves serialized bedtime stories before they went to sleep. Was this the case with you?
Elizabeth Bear: Nope. I started writing staple-bound pamphlets about dinosaurs and race horses and full of bad poetry in first grade or thereabouts.
I’ve never heard about the bedtime story thing. Really?
sffchronicles: Yes, really — though it didn’t stop some of us from writing the staple-bound pamphlets, too. Did you write many of these?
Elizabeth Bear: I must have. I don’t really recall: it was over thirty years ago.
sffchronicles: Do you remember the first SF or Fantasy you ever wrote?
Elizabeth Bear: It was probably a poem I wrote in second or third grade, deeply influenced by Bass’s The Godwhale and various other ecological disaster stories of the 1960s and 1970s. I was a somewhat precocious reader, and I grew up in a house full of SF books.
sffchronicles: Even though there is such diversity in your stories, do you feel there is any common theme (or themes) that runs through them?
Elizabeth Bear: Trauma recovery — and the acknowledgement that some trauma, you never recover from — and ethically impossible decisions.
Outsiders. The disenfranchised. Also, love and how it fucks you up and yet is sometimes worth it anyway, the inevitability of death and loss, crappy relationship choices, maimings, the brutal necessity of self-sacrifice in order to survive the horrors that the world inflicts upon us, more maimings, the fact that magic (and all that magic metaphorically stands for) is not safe and never can be made safe, things with wings, mutilation, and the necessity of getting over our stupid tribal differences in the face of the Vast Indifference of Heaven.
sffchronicles: What are you obsessive about?
Elizabeth Bear: See above.
Additionally, I’m pretty insanely passionate about this whole writing thing. It’s pretty much how I justify my existence and validate my carbon footprint.
sffchronicles: You’ve written a number of novellas recently. What are the advantages of writing stories at that length (aside from the obvious one that some stories work best at that length)?
Elizabeth Bear: People will pay me for them.
More seriously, it really is simply that some stories work best at that length. A story need to be as long as a story needs to be. And no longer. If there’s stuff that’s not doing narrative work, it doesn’t belong in there, no matter how cool it is.
And they’re faster to write than novels.
My stories seem to be taking up more space these days. Maybe I’m succeeding in breaking up some of the information density that’s plagued me for years, and increased white space is leading to longer narratives.
But I just made that up and it’s probably nonsense.
sffchronicles: Which of your characters or books (if any) do you think are most representative of you as an individual? As a writer?
Elizabeth Bear: Heh. My writer insertion character is Matthew Szczgielniak in the Promethean Age books. Not that our history is particular similar (I’ve never had a brother stolen by fairies, and I’m not a mage, or an English teacher), but generally speaking, Matthew responds to just about any situation the way I probably would: he tends to be a bit bitchy and sarcastic and alienated and analytical. Which is, well, pretty much me.
sffchronicles: As a writer, what do you feel the most passionate about?
Elizabeth Bear: That the most important thing a book can do is give somebody who desperately needs it some comfort, some sense that they’re not alone in the world, that the world may be awful and unfair and make no sense and be, essentially, a pit of existential despair and people being stupid, awful, selfish monsters to each other … but it doesn’t have to be that way. That we can make the decision to try to be a little less stupid, a little less awful, a little less monstrous.
Also, that it’s okay to survive something awful and not be perfect and pristine and unblemished afterward. If you get cut, it’s okay to carry a scar, and that doesn’t make you worthless … and it also doesn’t mean nobody will every love you.
sffchronicles: When you begin writing a series of novels, do you know how many books there will be? How far ahead do you plan?
Elizabeth Bear: I usually have a pretty good idea of the length of the plot arc, yes. At least once I’m a third of the way into it or so. Narratives have shape and weight and spin, inside my head. And I can feel how big they are and how they curve.
sffchronicles: Would you tell us a little about Range of Ghosts, which I understand is coming out early next year.
Elizabeth Bear: It’s a girly fantasy with maps and unicorns and a tragic love story.
… no, wait, that’s wrong. There are no unicorns, and fantasy isn’t girly.
It’s an epic fantasy set in a land that bears some resemblance to Central Asia (in the same sort of way that most fantasy realms are sort of a Generic Northern Europe) in which the grandson of a Great Khan and a neophyte wizard from a quasi-scientific tradition find themselves pitted against an ancient and self-serving necromantic conspiracy that definitely wants to rule the world, and which may be willing to raise up dead, dread gods to do it. It has swordfights and politics and true love and a whole lot of mountains and steppes.
sffchronicles: What are you reading now? Are there any new writers you particularly like?
Elizabeth Bear: Right now I am reading And Die in the West, by Paula Mitchell Marks, which is an exhaustive tome about the Gunfight In The Empty Lot Behind The OK Corral and its context, and Cathrynne Valente’s Palimpsest, which is about a sexually transmitted city.
What’s a new writer? Hell, I’m a new writer, last I checked. It’s only been six years since my first novel came out.
Saladin Ahmed is an amazing short story writer, and his first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, comes out next year. I also very much liked Aliette de Bodard’s first novel, Servant of the Underworld, which is a fantasy set in the Mayan court. Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief is very good, as is Leah Bobet’s forthcoming first novel, Above, which is about a community of people living in the underpinnings of Toronto. I very much like the work of Nnedi Okorafor and Paolo Bacigalupi, but they hardly need my votes at this point. I like Amanda Downum’s first three novels, starting with The Drowned City, very much.
At a certain point, unfortunately, this becomes “hype your friends,” because this is such a small community and one does tend to read books by people one knows.
sffchronicles: And the inevitable questions: What are you writing now? What are your plans for the future?
Elizabeth Bear: I am writing the immediate sequel to Range of Ghosts, which is called Shattered Pillars, and I am trying to sell another series somewhere. Since I have about four proposals out, I can’t tell you which one, if any, will be picked up — so my plans for the future are fluid. But involve hopefully not starving!
I’ve also got a few little side projects going, including a book I’m in love with and may write on spec if I ever get time … and this thing called Shadow Unit, which is a multi-author web serial available at www.shadowunit.org. It’s about the government agency responsible for hunting down superpowered serial killers … some of whom may be growing up to be monsters themselves. We’ve been at it since 2007, and I kind of love it. Other contributors include Emma Bull, Holly Black, Sarah Monette, and Will Shetterly — there’s about ten of us in all now.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia
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