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[INTERVIEW] Charlie Jane Anders on ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY, Publishing and More

Photo by Tristan Crane

Charlie Jane Anders is an American writer and commentator. She has written several novels and is the publisher of other magazine, the “magazine of pop culture and politics for the new outcasts”. In 2005, she received the Lambda Literary Award for work in the transgender category, and in 2009, the Emperor Norton Award. Her 2011 novelette Six Months, Three Days won the 2012 Hugo and was nominated for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards.

Timothy C. Ward: Hello Charlie, great to meet you. Congrats on all of your achievements, including your Hugo for Six Months, Three Days, your TV option and most recently, All the Birds in the Sky.

Your background strikes me as one from someone with great courage. What have you learned about yourself and your unique skills that has taught you how to overcome your fears and do what you most love?

Charlie Jane Anders: Being a writer is really, soul-crushingly hard. It’s hard for everyone. If being a writer was easy, nobody would want to do it. There are seemingly millions of aspiring science fiction and fantasy authors out there, each with their own awesome stories to tell, and there’s only so much time and attention and bookshelf space to go around. Even if you’re self-publishing, you still have to get readers interested in your work, and that means a lot of hard work — both on improving your writing, and on figuring out how to reach an audience. I spent years in the “wilderness,” submitting my short stories over and over again and getting piles of rejections, until it felt like I was getting buried in rejection letters. I wrote roughly 100 short stories that either never got published, or got published in small-press magazines and other random places. The thing that kept me going was believing that all of this pain and rejection was making me a better writer in the long term, because I kept trying to come back with a better story next time. And I still feel as though every time, I have to try and hit people with a better story than the last time. I don’t really want to say that I have any “unique skills,” because I think the main thing I have is persistence. I kept beating my head against the wall, and getting feedback and critiques on my stories, because I was too stubborn to quit. And whenever I meet another writer who became an “overnight” success, it always turns out that they had years and years of trying to get their stuff out there and getting shot down over and over again.

TCW: While I am sure there have been many people who have supported you in your life and career, is there one in particular who has helped you the most? What have they done for you and continue to do?

CJA: There have been a lot of people who’ve helped me immensely with my writing and my career. But one huge turning point for me was when I decided to submit a story to the slush pile at Tor.com. I had always assumed that Tor.com was getting most of its stories by soliciting them from big-name authors and up-and-coming whiz kids — if anybody was in a position to be able to go through their rolodex and find an army of great writers, it would be those guys. But then I saw someplace that Tor’s online fiction site was specifically welcoming unsolicited stories from new authors, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I had hung out with Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden at WorldCon once or twice, but it was still a huge shock when I sent in my story, “The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model,” and Patrick wrote back directly. He asked me to make some improvements to the ending, and then — utter shock — he accepted it. This put me on the map, in a way that definitely had not been the case before. And then he published a few more stories from me, including “Six Months, Three Days,” which got quite a bit more attention.

Getting my stories published in that higher-profile market helped me to have the confidence to tackle the more ambitious story in All the Birds in the Sky. And All the Birds in the Sky also owes a lot to some of the books that Patrick had been publishing in the previous few years: The clashes with authority that young Patricia and Laurence have in middle school felt very much indebted to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, and all the stuff about growing up geeky and isolated was an obvious pilfering of Jo Walton’s Among Others. So I was thrilled when Patrick wanted to publish the novel, as well, and even more so when he started coming out with ideas and theories and critiques about it.

Everybody at Tor has been fantastic, but Patrick has really helped me, over the past five years, to go from a struggling small-press author to someone who can at least attempt the kind of audacious work that Patrick has been known for publishing. As to whether I pulled it off, or whether I’m going to wind up looking like a sad pretender for my attempts to compare myself to Cory Doctorow and Jo Walton, I’m keeping all of my extremities crossed at this point.

TCW: Have you ever had a period in life where you stopped writing? If so, what caused it and how did you pick it back up?

CJA: I haven’t ever quit writing, since I started thinking of it as my career years ago. There have definitely been some times when it was easier than others — times when it felt like I was writing a lot of story fragments and not quite getting any traction on a new story. There was one winter, a long time ago, before I had really gotten the rhythm of writing fiction every day, when I kind of fell into a hole. I was doing various horrible temp jobs, getting paid minimum wage to sit and watch a phone that never rang or reorganize the same office supplies over and over again.

And I was living just outside Boston, during one of those winters where the whole city gets covered in such a thick cushion of snow that parked cars turn into indistinct blobs in the landscape. You can’t really go anywhere or do anything in that kind of weather, so when I wasn’t sitting in an office staring into space, I was stuck at home. Perfect time to get some fiction writing done, right? But I kept getting sucked into playing video games, rewatching old movies, chatting on the internet with people… anything except actually tackling the story I was trying to write, which was about a cyborg insurance adjuster if I remember correctly. That was the most horrible times of my life, and a big part of it was the fact that I wasn’t able to get any writing done.

TCW: In light of the following quote from your book, how might this story of two children illustrate a journey for courage, and what challenges will they face?

CJA: “Children,” said Theodolphus Rose, “are adults who haven’t yet learned to make fear their hand puppet.”

That line was really tough to get right. I kept futzing with it over and over again, for months, because I wanted it to convey this sense that in Theodolphus’ mind, what separates children from adults is the ability to control their fear. But also, turning fear into your hand puppet means that you can kind of talk to it and make it into an imaginary person, which fits with Theodolphus, who is kind of a messed-up assassin who wants to kill our main characters, Laurence and Patricia. Theodolphus also thinks of fear as a tool that he can use to control others, instead of just something that will control him — but he overestimates his ability to use fear to his advantage. I think of the first half of All the Birds in the Sky as being like a conventional coming-of-age story in some ways. Laurence and Patricia learn to face their fears and come into their power, by overcoming huge obstacles. It hits a lot of the notes that you’d expect to see in a story of coming of age and triumphing over a scary, potentially ruinous or deadly, situation. And I definitely drew on some scary times from my own childhood for that stuff, without actually writing autobiography or anything. But then All the Birds in the Sky jumps forward 10 years, and we get to spend time with Patricia and Laurence as adults. She’s a fully-fledged witch instead of just a struggling kid, and he’s a super-genius wunderkind instead of just an alienated young inventor. They have the lives they always dreamed of having when they were kids — but it’s not perfect, and (hopefully) you start to see how their journey of “coming of age” hasn’t just suddenly ended now that they’re in their early 20s instead of their early teens. They’re still dealing with the same issues, just in a different way, and there are still scary things out there. It’s just that life is even more complicated and confusing when you have roommates and boyfriends and girlfriends and jobs and bosses and so on. I think that the real courage that both Patricia and Laurence exhibit is being themselves when everybody is trying to turn them into something else — and that’s something that you see when they’re lonely kids, but also when they’re adults who have found their place in the world.

About Timothy C. Ward (29 Articles)
Timothy C. Ward grew up on DragonLance, Stephen King, and Dune. Read how he blends these influences in his serialized epic, Scavenger: Evolution, where sand divers uncover death and evolution within America's buried fortresses. His books are available in ebook and signed paperback at www.spikepub.com.
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