[GUEST ROUNDTABLE] Deborah J. Ross on Marion Zimmer Bradley and Darkover: Inspiring a Generation of Writers
Deborah J. Ross writes and edits fantasy and science fiction. She’s a former SFWA Secretary and member of Book View Café. Her short fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov’s, Star Wars: Tales From Jabba’s Palace, Realms of Fantasy, Sword & Sorceress, and various other anthologies and magazines. Her most recent books include the Darkover novel, The Children of Kings (with Marion Zimmer Bradley); Lambda Literary Award Finalist Collaborators, an occupation-and-resistance story with a gender-fluid alien race (as Deborah Wheeler); and The Seven-Petaled Shield, an epic fantasy trilogy. She has just signed contracts for three more Darkover novels and another Darkover anthology.
Marion Zimmer Bradley was legendary not only for her own literary creations, including the Darkover series and The Mists of Avalon, but for inspiring and nurturing new writers. One of the joys of editing Stars of Darkover was discovering authors who sold their first stories to Marion’s anthologies and went on to notable careers. Even when Marion didn’t buy a story, she would often send a letter explaining why, suggest resources for the young writer, and offer encouragement. Here’s what some of the authors in this stellar new Darkover anthology have to say about how Marion influenced their careers…
Marion Zimmer Bradley was an early supporter of my writing. I had just sold my first novel, Frost, when I saw an announcement that Marion was seeking stories for a new anthology called Sword and Sorceress. I decided to take a shot at that and wrote a story called “Child of Orcus,” involving female gladiators in the Roman arenas during the reign of Caligula, which was a little-known or discussed historical fact at the time.
Marion loved the story and wrote an astonishingly complimentary introduction for it, stating, among other very nice things, that “I bought this story under the impression that this was a woman writing about a woman. Only after deciding to purchase it did I discover that Robin Bailey was a man; but like all really good writers, gender is unimportant to the perceptive eye he brings to the study of his heroine.” That’s a compliment I’ve always held closely. “Child of Orcus” became my second professional genre sale and saw publication exactly one year after my first novel appeared.
Of course she influenced me, just as she did all writers of my generation by the stories she chose to tell, and by the founding of MZB’s Fantasy Magazine. Writing for MZBFM and for the Sword and Sorceress anthology series was an exercise in writing to market while putting aside the preconceptions still widely held in the F/SF field of the time: it stretched my imagination and really showed me what I could manage to get away with in terms of plot.
But more than that, having been privileged to collaborate with her and to write as her, I had the opportunity to study her writing in depth: her vocabulary and sentence structure, her themes, and her methods of drawing a character. It was really a master class in the “bread and butter” aspects of storytelling, and I think it has affected the stories I choose to tell, and the way I tell them, ever since.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the Darkover books in particular, are part of the reason I became a science fiction writer. As a young girl, Bradley was one of the writers who wrote about girls and women in a way I could identify-interesting, active women with agency, but who also chafed at the constraints of their society. Many of the other writers I enjoyed reading growing up wrote entirely fantasy, and here Darkover was a wonderful exception because, while there was magic, there was also science. At least there was space travel, and I was one of the kids who loved science and the space program. Girls existed and sometimes got to act in fantasy books, but were entirely invisible in any books with space ships and star travel. More than anything else, Marion Zimmer Bradley showed me that I could be a science fiction writer without erasing myself as a female, from the time I was very young.
There are no words sufficient to say how much of an impact Marion had on me as a young writer starting out. She bought my first story “Wound on the Moon” for Sword and Sorceress #2 (DAW, 1985), and my second and my third, and so on, so she gave me my “pro wings.” But that’s not all-her wonderful advice on storytelling, her supportive rejections-yup, there were tons of rejections, including the very first rejection where she graciously went through a novella with a red pen and gave me, a teenager just starting out, a detailed edit critique free of charge and encouraged me to rewrite and resubmit-all of this helped give me a focus and a direction and an understanding of the writing and editing process. And not only that, I also learned a great deal about shared-world writing by writing in the world of Darkover. Basically, I would not be the writer that I am now without her. I owe her everything, and am profoundly honored to be one of “Marion’s own writers” as so many of us went on to be.
I made the mistake of taking Creative Writing in college — a mistake, because although it did teach me something about structure and style, the goal was to write literary fiction, which I found a dead bore, and my stories showed it. As a result, I gave up on the idea of writing for the next ten years. It was not until I had married Jon DeCles, who had been unofficially adopted into the Zimmer family, and gotten to know Marion herself, that it dawned on me that real people (i.e., people who liked the same kind of books I did) could actually write them. When I finally managed to complete a novel, Marion was kind enough to read and critique it. I cried. Then I rewrote it. Several times, actually. But Marion continued to encourage me, and so I didn’t give up. Since everyone else in the family was writing, too (except for my sister-in-law Tracy Blackstone, who was our agent), we ended up with a sort of extended-family cum writers’ colony, with some amazing discussions around the tea-table.
Marion forced me to learn how to write women. Back in the early 90s, when I was a new writer, about the only short fiction market for the sword-and-sorcery stories I wanted to write was Marion, and she wanted strong female characters. So I learned to write strong female characters, and I sold her more than a dozen stories over the years. She also taught me how to be a professional–writing daily, accepting criticism, understanding how to deliver what a reader (and editor) wants, and seeing writing as a business as well as an art. As a result, when I sold a novel, the first person I called was Marion. “Help!” I said. “I need an agent!” She laughed and made a recommendation that led to the agent I have to this day.
We are both graduates of the Marion Zimmer Bradley School of Hack-Writing. Ann says that Marion was the first person to explain simply and clearly the elements of a plot. Great literature does not do this very well. Lisa remembers Marion saying that one editor told her to stop trying to show how beautifully she could write and just tell the story. Obviously Marion provided years of
I’d been a long-time Darkover reader when I first came upon Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover anthologies. I was just beginning to try to write professionally at the time, so I decided to try to write a story for one of them. I sent off for writer’s guidelines — this was in the days of snail mail, and I didn’t know to include a self-addressed stamped envelope, but Marion sent me guidelines anyway, along with a page of advice for new writers. (I wonder how she knew? :-)) So I wrote my story, rewrote it about a million times, sent it off — and was stunned when it sold! Knowing I’d made that first professional sale helped me stick with it as I worked on becoming a better writer and selling more consistently.
My first professional sale was to the debut volume of Sword and Sorceress, followed by “Midwife” in Free Amazons of Darkover. Marion read my first published novel (Jaydium, as Deborah Wheeler) in draft form, and her critical feedback on that and many other writing projects was invaluable. As her health declined, we began collaborating on the Darkover series, which I continue writing today, as well as my original work and editing the renewed Darkover anthologies. Marion was my mentor, my cheerleader, my inspiration, and my friend.
Tagged with: Ann Sharp • Darkover • Deborah J. Ross • Diana Paxson • Elisabeth Waters • Janni Lee Simner • Marion Zimmer Bradley • Robin Wayne Bailey • Rosemary Edghill • Shariann Lewitt • Steven Harper • Vera Nazarian
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