INTERVIEW: Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee was born in South America, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. Her first novel Warchildwon the 2001 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. Both Warchild (2002) and her third novel Cagebird(2005) were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award. Cagebird won the Prix Aurora Award in 2006 for Best Long-Form Work in English and the Spectrum Award also in 2006. Her second novel Burndrive debuted at #7 on the Locus Bestseller List. Her books have been translated into French, Hebrew, and Japanese. Her current fantasy novel, The Gaslight Dogs, was recently published through Orbit Books USA in April 2010.


Andrew Liptak: Hi Karin, thank you for having a couple of words with us. You had a bit of a break between your first trilogy and the start of the second: what have you been up to in the last couple of years?

Karin Lowachee: Thanks for asking! Cagebird kind of burnt me out, to be honest. The book was so heavy and after dealing with it I needed some space and I was re-evaluating some things in my life as well, which is healthy to do on a regular basis. I’m conscious of the fact that writing shouldn’t consume me on every level because that’s not balanced, I have other interests and goals, and it’s very easy to get too involved in the world of writing instead of with the writing itself and how that contributes to me as a person. But that being said, I was also developing other novel ideas through that period in conjunction with my publisher at the time, Warner Aspect. But development is a slow process (my process is generally slow, I’m not the sort of writer that can blow through 5 novels in 5 years) and I think I drew up at least 2 or 3 full novel proposals that didn’t mesh with what they wanted. Then Warner shuffled and I changed publishers. There are background things that go on sometimes that stall a writer from outputting, but I actually pitched The Gaslight Dogs back in 2007 and the process took however long it took to write, and then was subject to Orbit’s publishing schedule. You don’t get into this business if you aren’t patient.


AL: So what else do you do when you are not wearing your writer’s hat? How does that impact what you write?

KL: I never take off the hat, really, but I’m a teacher, I do volunteer work for various organizations. I have nearly 21GB of music in my iTunes and a full bookshelf full of DVDs and CDs — let’s not even get into my other creative loves. Experience, no matter what it is, impacts my writing in some way. I can’t narrow it down specifically. Life.

AL: With Warchild and the ensuing stories in that universe, you were inspired by the plight of child soldiers. What inspired Gaslight Dogs?

KL: Some crossover issues, like colonialism, the invasion of a technological society on one that is less mechanical. The clash of cultures. People driven by things they don’t quite understand, or things they think they understand but the results become unpredictable. And I had a strong desire to explore spirituality in hopefully a unique way – it extends beyond the Aniw concept of the Little Spirit. I was also inspired, obviously, by the Inuit culture I was fortunate to interact with for a time. That was the leap point for the whole shebang.

AL: Do you see your writing as a way to serve a cause, as a sort of activist? Or are the two separate?

KL: I’d like my writing to be something other than pure entertainment. I like it to be entertaining on some level, but if it can provide some enlightenment, that’s part of the reason it’s my passion. This takes up too much of my time, energy, and brainspace for me to want to do it just for giggles and to have people giggle and toss it without another thought. If it were just that for me then that would mean I’d be spending most of my time on something with no real consequence to anybody, including myself, and I obsess too much about my place in the world and what good I’m doing in it for that to be satisfactory. I write as a way to enlighten myself, and I don’t mean that in a self-aggrandizing way as if my work is all that zen. I mean that it’s one way of navigating the world, its people, and everything that goes along with being a human being on this planet. I explore these things through the creative art of writing. I ask questions. I offer angles. If it makes people ask their own questions of the world and of themselves, and start to look at things outside of their boxes, then I feel like I’m doing some good with this. Other writers approach it differently and I respect that. My view is if I’m going to trap someone for a week and 400 pages, I’d like to make it more than entertainment. Of course I don’t control how people interact with my books and what they see or don’t see in them, but that’s fine. I’m at the point that I know what writing does for me and I’ve interacted with readers to know that there are a lot of them out there that engage with it in the same way. Do I go into my books with specific agendas? No. I don’t start off a novel with a Statement. I start off with characters and a world.

AL: Warchild, Burndive and Cagebird all took place in the far future, but Gaslight Dogs takes place in a relatively familiar setting in what could be called North America, with a number of parallels to history. Why the jump back in time and genre?

KL: My publisher wanted something different from me and I was more than game. I’ve always written in both science fiction and fantasy, and everything in between and outside of the genre, and my editor asked me if I would consider fantasy and gave me carte blanche. Their one stipulation was they didn’t want sword and sorcery, and since I have little to no desire to write a sword and sorcery fantasy – unless I can somehow do something really whacky with it, it might be a fun challenge – I ran headlong into the idea of exploring a world that was a little unexplored. I wanted the Arctic setting, to bring it into the Victorian era. I have big plans for Sjenn’s Arctic. I love the Weird West milieu that I’ve apparently stepped into; I didn’t know that was what it was called when I was writing it. I just knew I loved Westerns, the unique mythology of them, and I have wanted to write one for years. This was my chance. Writing fantasy is also a great challenge to switch up the Voice of a novel. I’m very conscious of the Voices of my novels and I was stoked to play with that in a way that I didn’t in the SF.

AL: There is a real western feel to the book at points, as well as steampunk and fantasy elements: how do you see the book? Is there really any point to have a ton of small genres, or just classify everything as speculative fiction and be done with it?

KL: I understand the necessity for classification, whether it’s simply because it’s a way humans work to understand their world (or in this case, literature), or because marketing demands it, but I think it’s dangerous to be too locked into classifications and then begin to define your work and yourself by smart phrases and quirky titles. Although maybe people like being defined that way, I don’t know. I don’t like being defined that way. Wouldn’t it be cool if a bookstore just had all the books alphabetized by author, no separation of genre, and people went in without prejudice and tried everything, starting at A? And through that process figured out that some books jived with them and some didn’t, and maybe it had nothing to do with whether it was speculative or not? This would be assuming people had open minds. This is the way I read. I don’t care about genre–in literature, in music, in film. Sure, I learned early that bodice rippers don’t interest me, but that was after I actually read a bodice ripper and realized I could spend a couple days reading something else and enjoying it more, so that’s what I’d rather do, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never read another. None of these genres work in isolation. Like I said in my Orbit interview at the back of the novel: writing is one species; its genres are just different breeds. And mixing the breeds makes for interesting results. Look, I worked in a dog metaphor.

AL: The Gaslight Dogs looks to some fairly unconventional elements for a fantasy novel: far different location, different approaches to magic (if it can be called that) and overall, a rather sparse use of fantastic elements. How come?

KL: Because the story and plot dictated it. Since I wanted to explore spirituality in a few different facets, it wasn’t going to be ‘magic’ so much as spirituality. I think there’s a difference, though overtly I’m not sure I can put it into words, or maybe it’s just a matter of point-of-view. If anything I wanted the two concepts to blend. Jarrett looks on the idea of magic like someone who has embraced the modern ideas of his age – he’s dumped it into religion and spirituality and thinks it’s all bunk, or something relegated to children’s stories or ignorance or True Believers (like Father Bari) that he can respect, sort of, but with a mild kind of superiority because he thinks they’re still a bit off. Magic and spirituality, to him, are things you grow out of, and he sees no cohesion to it in his world. That of course was the jumping off point for what happens to him and, in fact, there is a lot of cohesion in the world through ‘magic’ and Sjenn and Keeley know this. A belief system can still be tested, in a way very much like a mechanical construct except the results fall under a different paradigm, but it’s still a paradigm that has edges and rules and logic. So Jarrett’s belief system is tested and that was what I wanted to explore, contrasted by Sjenn’s world view. Magic is only magic when you don’t understand the construct. It’s not magic to Sjenn, it’s how the world works.

AL: What is next for the Middle Light stories that you’ve started with The Gaslight Dogs?

KL: I have working titles for the other two: The Moonlight Dogs for Book 2, and The Midnight Dogs for Book 3. They’re outlined loosely because that’s how I work, but I definitely know the end point and the arc of the characters. I’m still developing details, though, and I’m really excited to stitch them all together. I write books that I would love to read and this is a story I would love to read; these are people I want to travel with and see how and where they end up. I don’t want to say too much of what I have planned because ideas have a habit of morphing and it would also be spoilery to those who haven’t read The Gaslight Dogs yet. The milieu of the world, though, as far as Ciracausa and the Arctic, is one I’d love to keep exploring past the arc of the trilogy. There are so many places to go, from the cities to the frontier, and a lot of other people I could write about. But…we’ll see.

AL: Are you planning on shifting characters like in your prior novels?

KL: I might add another point-of-view, but I think the books would be at a loss if I switched out of Sjenn and Jarrett. They need to be there to show the panorama of the story. And I’ve got such fun things planned for them that I want to be able to show how it all impacts them on a personal level.

AL: Will you be retuning to the Warchild universe anytime in the future?

KL: With a novel? I don’t know. I would love to. I still love those characters. I have the books planned, especially the 4th one in that mosaic series that would tie off the first 3 a lot better, but it’s all up to the readers buying my books and my publisher being interested in more. That’s the reality for a writer like me and I won’t front about it. I tell my readers constantly: if you like my work and want to see more of it, buy it and spread the word, and I have to hand it to them – I have some die-hard readers that I’ve kept in contact with since Warchild, even through the sabbatical. That’s loyalty and it’s humbling. I have short stories that I call Omake, from the Warchild universe, and those will be made available somehow in the future. It’s hard to go between fantasy and SF for me, though. I’m not a multitasking writer, inherently, so it takes some doing to switch back and forth when what I want is to drown myself in research pertaining to the immediate work and then write. But I’m working on them.

AL: Final question: Have you picked up any good books lately? What’s worth checking out?

KL: I’m reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s a heavy book so it’s slow going and the style might be difficult for some, but I like that. I don’t read for sheer pleasure, where I can turn off my writing brain and just dig in. If I want to turn off my writing brain and get into a good story I watch movies or TV – and even then I’m listening to the dialogue and trying to see structure and pacing, and movies that I think have great scripts I try to get ahold of them to read them (incidentally, I co-wrote my first screenplay, Winter Harvest, last year and it was a fantastic experience; the movie’s being shot as an indie.) If I spend time reading novels I want to get something out of it, I want the book to feed my muse or be something I can pick apart so I can add to my skill set. Blood Meridian is that. I understand there is some controversy over his view of the Southwest, but I’m not really paying attention to that. I’m interested in how he breaks narrative rules, how he puts images together, how he depicts character. I also loved Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, and my friend Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing, which is up for a Nebula and is a beautiful book. Those are just 3 off-the-top-of-my-head examples. I’ve also been reading the manga Death Note and I want badly to get my hands on The Last Days of American Crime by Rick Remender, because that concept is right up my alley and what I’ve seen of it is very cool. I’m a newbie to the graphic novel scene but I want to learn more and read more, because I think the format is amazing and the stories are so wide open. I love art, so mixing art and story like that is a dream. As you can see my tastes are pretty varied. I get bored easily with books that don’t do something different, somehow. I never want to settle into a rut where all of my books over time sound and look the same and the only thing changing is the plot and the characters’ faces. I love reading for the language, too, how it’s used and manipulated to create a world and specific people. Books that throw away language and character don’t tend to hold my interest. If I wanted to read a bland style I’d pick up an encyclopedia.