INTERVIEW: Chatting with Hugo- and Nebula-Award Nominee Nancy Fulda at Nebula Weekend
Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee and has been honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society for her writing. She has been a featured writer at Apex Online, a guest on the Writing Excuses podcast, and is a regular attendee of the Villa Diodati Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction can be found in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and other professional venues.
At the Nebula Awards Weekend in Arlington, Virginia two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nancy to talk about her Hugo- and Nebula-award nominated story, “Movement,” and about writing fiction and nonfiction. We sat just outside the hotel bar on a Thursday evening, as waves of science fiction and fantasy writers, editors, agents, publishers and fans trickled through the lobby to registration.
Jamie Todd Rubin: Congratulations on your nomination. How does it feel to be a Nebula nominee?
Nancy Fulda: Well, after I got done dancing around the house, my next concern was actually: how do I handle this without becoming an arrogant, pompous jerk, because it’s an incredible honor to be nominated and puts me in the company of so many illustrious authors. It feels really good. It feels really nice to have people recognize that this story is special because it’s one that was really meaningful to me when I wrote it. It’s nice for me to see the nomination as a means of brining more attention to the story and helping it reach more readers.
JTR: It’s a great story and one of the things that really stood out for me in the story is this idea that our perception of a person who seems different from us in some way is really something we put on that person. Inside, for a person who has lived their entire life knowing what they know, it is just business-as-usual. It’s the way it is, the only thing they’ve ever known. Was that intentional in “Movement?”
NF: It was more of an emergent effect of the story. I’m often a very organic writer and especially with movement, it was an organically-written story. I started with a couple of ideas and I started exploring and seeing where they went. But where a lot of “Movement” came out of was my son, who is on the autistic spectrum, and was about five years old at the time. If you know anything about autistic spectrum kids, five years old is the peak symptomatic moment. That’s the time when the parents haven’t gotten a diagnosis yet and they’re wondering whether they are just bad parents because everything is going wrong. You end up struggling to understand someone whose perception of the world is completely different than your own. Hannah, in the story, is not my son, and I don’t claim that her perceptions are identical with the perceptions of any autistic person because we are all unique. But the character of Hannah grew out of this idea that we do not all perceive the world the same way. And we forget this so much because we are used to the idea that human beings come with different skin colors, different hair colors, they’re tall, they’re short, they have different abilities. Yet we still persist in believing that everybody experiences the world the same way and just reacts differently. And it’s not true.
For me Hannah is almost like her own person because she taught me something as I was discovering the story. In a lot of ways I’m really pleased I got a chance to meet Hannah because writing the story changed the ways I interacted with my son and the ways that I viewed other people’s actions.
One of the things we learned very quickly as parents of an autistic child is that if you want to change behavior you need to go over perception. It is very difficult to train action because it’s almost always a question of “what has this child observed or not observed in this situation?” and “how can I help this child to observe the same things that I am observing?” And then the action flows. “Movement” was fun because, for instance, in the scene with the grandparents, you got to really see how actions, which seem to be motivated out of pure rudeness, really did have a basis in perception and experience of the world.
NF: No, the opposite! I knew I liked it. I was interested in various aspects like the flytraps–I love the idea of these little flytraps sitting and gobbling up crumbs from the sidewalk cafe. If I were a kid, I would think that was awesome. So I knew I liked parts of it. It was originally written for one of the Codex contests, a Codexian Idol contest, and it tanked in the first round. Nobody liked it. But that was good because the feedback from that made me realize I needed a human angle to explore all of these ideas from and that’s how Hannah ended up being the character that she was. So without tanking, it would have never risen to the point where it could be published in Asimov’s and everything else the story has achieved.
When I started sending it out, I was pretty nervous about it, but then it sold on its first trip out and then I started getting fan letters, and I thought, “Let’s just see how far this story can go.” That’s when I sent it to Escape Pod and really began hoping that people would like it.
JTR: You said that Hannah is not your son. When people that you know have read the story, is that the reaction that you’ve gotten?
NF: No, it’s more that I’m afraid that they’ll think that. The only real criticism or negative commentary that I’ve gotten on the story is criticism of the fact that Hannah’s experience doesn’t match their experience with autism. I feel that is a straw-man argument; it was never my intention to make a statement about autism or to claim that Hannah’s experience is comparable to the experience of people on the real-life autistic spectrum. The whole point of the story was: here is one possible way that people might experience the world differently. But autism, just like other controversial topics, as soon as you put it in a story, it is perceived as the primary focus of the story. We are making a statement about autism! So people have complained about the idea of autistic savants and that all autists are really secret geniuses and the story is pursuing this false view and supporting a false perception of autism. I never say it–because you are not supposed to respond to critics–but I wanted to write about Hannah, this is not a story about autism. It is, in a way, and that has resonance and that’s why it has touched so many people. But this is Hannah’s story. It’s a story about one girl who has conditions similar to autism, who does happen to be incredible–because they make better stories. Overall the reactions have been really positive. I’ve been very surprised and very pleased with that.
NF: The first one that I have documented evidence of was written in the first grade and self-illustrated. It was about a knight with a talking sword who was obnoxious and rude and a scardy-cat. So apparently I started with fantasy. I got an A on the story. I was good for a first grader.
JTR: And where did the interest in science fiction come in?
NF: It came from my dad. My dad is a hard-core science geek, early innovator. He always showed us movies about the brain, and we watched Star Trek together as a family. Once I started reading I read a bunch of Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven. But really, the deep fundamental fascination with the world of science and innovation came from my Dad’s love of it.
JTR: I also read you mention Lois McMaster Bujold as an influence.
NF: Yes! In every possible way! I love the Vorkosigan books, because who doesn’t? The moment she went from being a favorite author to this person I would love to be was when I started reading some of her speeches that she gave at SFWA and other places. She had a couple that addressed the old genre-versus-literature theme in such an intelligent and very human way. So I guess you can say I fell in love with her fiction and I adopted her as a role model after I decided she was also a very fascinating person in real life. And ever since then, I just want to be Lois. Anyone who wants to schmooze with me, tell them to come up to Nancy and say, “Your book reminded me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books.” It’s the highest possible compliment anyone could give me.
NF: I pitched them to Cheryl. Well, that’s not quite the whole story, and now that I think about it, this connects very well with “Movement.” The first article, “Nothing This Fun Could Be Good For You” is all about perceptions of video games and perceptions of new media always being evil and demonstrating that throughout history, whatever was new has been condemned as the thing that is going to destroy civilization. And then Shakespeare! Shakespeare was low-level entertainment and now what do we do in high society for entertainment? We watch Shakespeare because that is literate. So the postulate is not far off base to think that in 100 years people might play networked video games as a form of high society entertainment.
But all of this grew out of a personal pet peeve with having a child on the autistic spectrum who loves video games, and who benefited incredibly from playing them. This was a touching moment for me: my son, initially, was very emotionally distant. His initial words were always imperatives. “I want this.” He never spoke just to show you something. He never pointed out, “Oh, pretty birds.” He only spoke when he required an action of you. And he discovered video games and he started to play them, and would run up to me and say, “Mom! Mom! You’ve got to see this!” For me, after five years, I was ready to cry. So we’d had this transformative family experience with video games, and what do I start getting from all society around me? “Your son is playing too many video games.” “Can’t you see how badly this is affecting your son because he’s having problems in Kindergarten, and obviously, if you wouldn’t let him play video games so much?”
So I had a major chip on my shoulder. And the little snippet in “Movement” came off this chip on my shoulder. My little punch: not necessarily everything we view as evil is evil. What I found was after I’d written “Movement,” I still had a chip on my shoulder so I wrote the article. I pitched it to Cheryl. It was a great article and a good idea and she took it and I wrote it on commission.
JTR: You’ve written a lot of fiction. Do you like writing fiction better than nonfiction? Do you have a preference?
NF: That would depend on when you ask me and what I had just finished writing. In general, when I’ve just finished writing a really difficult short story, of course, I think nonfiction is the best thing in the world, and vice versa. Every time I write an article I think, “Fiction is so much easier, I don’t have to research it, I can just make it up.”
JTR: You’ve got a Nebula nomination and a Hugo nomination. What’s next?
NF: Well, I either feel very happy on Saturday night, or I go to my hotel room and try not to cry. And after that, I finish the novel. It’s all about the novel.
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