INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Bear

[Editor’s Note: A while back, SF Signal published a Mind Meld feature on Tomorrow’s Big Genre Stars. Patrick at Stomping on Yeti has been profiling these writers and has agreed to cross-post them here.]

It’s Monday and that means another edition of Keeping An Eye On…. This week we are keeping one of the prominent female authors on the list, Elizabeth Bear. Now Elizabeth somehow manages to write novels as fast as Jay Lake writes short fiction. Don’t ask me how, just know that I’m jealous. Since 2005, she’s published more than 10 novels and that’s not even counting her spectacular short work. Like so many of the authors of the SF Signal Watchlist, she is a recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and unlike many of our authors she already has 2(!) Hugos to her name for her 2008 short story “Tideline” and her 2009 novelette “Shoggoths In Bloom.” Bear was nominated to the list by the likes of Paula Guran and Gardner Dozois but many more people suggested in the comments that she shouldn’t be eligible. Not because she didn’t deserve it, but because she was already considered one of the genre’s best.

I tend to agree with that assessment but I’m not arguing with the list, I’m just interviewing it. Anyway, let’s get on with it.


SoY: If we are keeping an eye on you, what should be looking for in the near future? What have you been working on recently?

EB: If you’re keeping an eye on me, maybe I need to learn to be sneakier! Right now, I just handed in book two of the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, called Chill, to Spectra. I am shopping around a fat fantasy with maps, and I’ve started work–with Sarah Monette–on the sequel to A Companion To Wolves. Also, we’re just wrapping up work on Shadow Unit (www.shadowunit.org) season 2, and gearing up planning for season 3.

SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours (novel, short story, imaginary TV show, etc.) would you like them to read?

EB: Oh man. See, I have to tailor that to the reader. I wouldn’t send a science fiction fan to read the same thing I would send an alternate history fan or a mystery buff or a sword-and-sorcery lover to read. Some of my work is more literary, and some is more pulp inspired.

Right now, though, the story I’m proudest of is “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall,” which was published in Ellen Datlow’s Del Rey Book Of Science Fiction And Fantasy, and which is available on my website.

SoY: Describe your writing style in haiku-form.

EB:

Something here with which

I take exception. Boom! Crash!

Argument ensues.

Hmm. That lacks a seasonal reference, doesn’t it?

SoY: Some of the other up and coming authors I’ve interviewed have mentioned how hard writing a novel is compared to their experiences writing shorter fiction. What did you find hardest about making that transition? Do you have any advice for any author struggling with their writing?

EB: Well, they’re not the same thing at all. Expecting writing short stories to prepare you for writing novels is like running fifty-meter sprints to prepare for a marathon. It just doesn’t help all that much.

I never made a transition, so to speak. I’ve been doing both all along–I wrote my first short stories when I was six or seven, and my first novel by age ten. The hard part, for me, was learning to create arc and linearity in prose. I think I am a poet by nature, but I’m kind of a lousy one. Fortunately, I’m a much better fiction writer, even though that linearity thing has been a challenge. People will expect their stories to have beginnings, middles, and ends–often in that order!

Advice for struggling writers? Textbooks of it, all of it either very helpful or totally useless. The best thing I can say is always strive a little above your abilities. That way, you can’t help but improve.

SoY: You are one of the prominent female authors (and one of only 5 on this list) in a genre dominated by male authors and male readers. What are your opinions on gender parity in speculative fiction today? Do you feel like being a woman viewed as a negative (unjustly so) by some readers?

EB: Well, I think the male readers thing is nonsense. The subgenre outselling the hell out of all the others right now is urban fantasy, which has a predominantly female fan base. More women read for entertainment than men.

I also know absolute scads of new female writers, many of whom are amazingly good. Just sticking to novelists, I could name Cat Valente, Chris Moriarty, Sarah Monette, Nalo Hopkinson, Liz WIlliams, Karen Traviss, Nora Jemisin, Amanda Downum, Marie Brennan, Naomi Novik, Justine Larbalestier– well, we would be here for a while.

However, I do agree that female writers get critically shorted. We’re not taken as seriously as men. Cathrynne Valente is every bit as good a writer as China Mieville, but she doesn’t get the ink he gets, or the publicity budget. We don’t make it onto the Hugo ballot in proportionate numbers, I suspect because the voter base for the Hugos has its favorites. Also, women seem to be more likely to be published in softcover than trade hardcover, which limits their critical exposure. I’ve been tremendously lucky to be well-reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and others, even though the majority of my titles are in paperback.

There was a big kerfuffle a year or two back over whether there should be more women in the Hugos or more men in the Dick awards (It was nearly all chicks that year, which is one of the things that lead me to realize how many women get pubbed in paperback original.). And you know, the fan awards–the fans are gonna vote for what they vote for.

One thing I flat-out love about my generation of SFF writers is that we’re the diversity bubble. We’re black, gay, Asian, Hispanic, queer, trangendered, women, third culture kids, nonChristian–and we’re here to stay, because science fiction is the literature of alienation, and boy have we have some stuff to talk about. I think the 40-and-under crowd is really amazing.

(I also keep hearing about how there are no new young SF writers coming up, and I’m amazed by that. Because I Look around and find myself surrounded by them.)

Is being a woman viewed as a negative by some readers? Sure. Chris Moriarty still feels it necessary to publish under a gender-neutral pseudonym, after all. On the other hand, I know male writers who are going gender-neutral or picking up female pseuds to crack the paranormal romance market, because that’s where the money is.

Basically, I think some men are very threatened by competent women. But, well. I don’t really care. I’m not writing to that audience. And I figure that my best bet is to just keep doing what I’m doing, and outlive the hell out of them, because there are certainly many, many men and women who like my books a lot. (My fan mail probably runs about fifty-fifty.)

Some white people won’t read books by authors of color, either. We call them “idiots.”

…well. That got me going.

SoY: You also participate in the writing of Shadow Unit, a television show that will most likely never air. Care to give us some background on what Shadow Unit is and how it came to be? What do you hope to accomplish?

EB: Well, I dunno if I’d go so far as to say it’s totally unlikely that it would never air. I bet CBS would turn Chaz into a white guy, though.

Shadow Unit was the brainchild of one Emma Bull, of whom you may have heard. Along with Charles de Lint and a couple of others, she invented this new speculative fiction subgenre back in the 80’s, which we now call “urban fantasy.”

One subgenre wasn’t enough for her, apparently, because while on a long car trip with her spouse, Will Shetterly, she came up with idea for a web-based, serial, interactive, multimedia hyperfiction project–basically an innovative storytelling structure exploiting the medium of web 2.0.

In less technical terms, it’s what happens when too many SFF writers who are also fans of spy and cop shows get together and decide to write their own mad little story about a task force composed of unrealistically sexy FBI agents trying to save the world from the worst monsters imaginable.

It allows a real-time narrative (which largely takes place in character blogs), combined with serial installments (“episodes”) written by a staff of variously best-selling, award-winning, and New Hotness SFF writers. There’s also a message board, wiki, and active fan community. We’re issuing it under a Creative Commons license, and one fan has created ebooks.

And it’s all funded on the public radio guilt model.

I just think it’s the coolest thing ever, and there’s always something going on.

Also, I’m in love with every single one of the characters. Every. Single. One.

SoY: What are your writing habits like? Do you have any peculiar writing habits that somehow work for you but everyone else would find quirky (and/or insane)?

EB: Yes. I tell people that I am the official Bad Example. All that stuff you’re supposed to do to be a Real Writer? (write every day, work on one project at a time, pick a subgenre and stick to it, don’t revise as you go, set regular working hours, etc?) It’s death to me. I tried doing it last year and wound up being a year overdue on a novel because I broke myself so badly.

Basically, I write anywhere and everywhere. I do six things at once, and I can’t put together two back to back books in a subgenre to save my life.

SoY: What authors would you describe as your primary influences in developing your personal literary style?

EB: Oh, lordie. This is where I’m supposed to say something coy, or literary and patently false, right?

The abovementioned Emma Bull, and her compatriots of the Scribblies (Steven Brust, Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, Pat Wrede.) Kurt Vonnegut. Roger Zelazny. Somebody once compared me to a young Poul Anderson, and I about fell over dead, I was so happy. Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ, both of whom I read at an impressionable age, thus scarring myself eternally (sort of in a good way). John Bellairs. L. Frank Baum. Joy Chant. Ursula Le Guin. Maya Angelou. L. Frank Baum. Octavia Butler.

Peter Beagle, who made me want to be a writer.

I have a very strong mythological influence, which probably actually comes from having parents who were folk musicians, and exposed me to a lot of bloody old ballads at a very young age. I’m pretty sure the entire Promethean Age thing comes from listening to Steeleye Span’s Commoner’s Crown album on endless repeat for most of my childhood.

I’ve also been informed that I am in the grand tradition of New England writers, in that I write comedies of ethics–the sort of thing where Our Doughty Hero is endlessly forced into making absolutely obscene ethical choices between terrible and awful alternatives. I think I have to cop to that. So, Nathaniel Hawthorne it is.

SoY: Some of your work is almost beyond subgenre classification. What’s the strangest story you’ve ever sold?

EB: Parodic Man from UNCLE meta-slash. Which is Hal Duncan’s fault, though I have never admitted it before.

SoY: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

EB: Oh wow. Two things: one is having writers and editors who I respect and admire compliment my work. The other is when somebody writes to me and tells me something I wrote changed their life for the better somehow. I have had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting–online and in person–fans who found some solace or strength or catharsis in my work.

I write to be read, and because it is the work that’s set before my hand. And because it’s the most effective tool I have for alleviating suffering. Which is, to my mind, the only useful work in the world.

I kick you off the list because you’ve already published 10 novels in less than 5 years. You aren’t up-and-coming, you’re here. Who do you nominate to the list in your place?

See above! Okay, Karen Traviss is probably “here,” too. Um, and let’s think about some boys and some short story writers, too. Christopher Barzak. Yoon Ha Lee. Leah Bobet. David Schwartz. Tobias Buckell. Cherie Priest, who has just made a major breakthrough in terms of kicking her writing up a notch with her forthcoming book. Nisi Shawl, who needs to sell a damn novel already. Christopher Rowe. Paolo Baciagalupi.

It’s thick on the ground out here. This is exciting times.

SoY: You’ve published an amazing amount of novels in a very short period of time. Were any of these novels done prior to your first sale or are you just unbelievably proficient? How do you manage to maintain such a high output and remain at the top of your creative game?

EB: I’m a frelling genius.

*fails to keep a straight face at all*

Well, I write a lot. It’s my full-time job, and I do, you know, use that time to write. And I have been practicing since first grade, so I kind of have the basics down now that I’m creeping up on forty. I read a lot. I try to have adventures and meet people and keep filling up the well. And I’m crabby. I’m terribly, terribly crabby, and most of my books come from a deep-seated well of irascibility, where I read or see something and thing “That’s just not right. I should FIX THAT.”

And so I try. And I keep trying to make each one better–richer, stronger, more nuanced, more accessible, trickier, cleverer, cleaner, more beautiful, more exciting and interesting and full of wonderful people–than the last. I don’t always succeed. But I try. and I think that’s the important part.

They’re never as good as I want them to be, of course.

That, and the variety helps. If I were just writing Jenny Casey books, I don’t think I could manage to keep making them interesting. But I have a lot of stories in my head, and I am always finding new ones.

SoY: Every writer has a favorite word. Mine’s plethora. What’s that unique word that tries to find its way into everything you write?

EB: “shatter”

It’s not even my favourite word. My favorite word is “floccinaucinihilipilificatrix.” But it’s probably revelatory of my deep psychological unwellness or something.

SoY: What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

EB: Probably Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing. Or John M. Ford’s The Last Hot Time. Oh, wait, no. Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. That one.

SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]

EB: Hee. Well, Shadow Unit, of course. And www.elizabethbear.com. Which needs to be updated something fierce. Also, I have a livejournal and a twitter feed.


Yet more great responses from yet another great author. I can’t say enough how much I’ve been enjoying talking with these authors who are either just reaching their prime or on their way toward it. The combination of talent and enthusiasm is infectious, and I’m get excited to read these authors over and over again.

Elizabeth Bear is no exception. Go check out her work. I guarantee that at least one of her books is exactly the book for you.