Today I am thrilled to have an interview with Elizabeth Bear for you. Elizabeth Bear received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has won the Hugo Award twice – for “Tideline” in the Best Short Story category in 2008 and for “Shoggoths in Bloom” in the Best Novelette category in 2009. She has written many short stories and books, including but not limited to the Jenny Casey trilogy, the Promethean Age novels, the Edda of Burdens trilogy, the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, New Amsterdam and two other related novellas, and The Chains That You Refuse. Also, she is one of several authors involved in producing Shadow Unit, an online serial story. For more information about her and her work, visit her website or her blog.
On a more personal note, she’s been one of my favorite authors ever since I discovered her Promethean Age novels (review of Blood and Iron). Since then, I’ve read several of her other books, and her recently completed Edda of Burdens trilogy is one of my favorite series for their beautiful writing and complexity of both characters and themes (review of All the Windwracked Stars). It is my great pleasure to have an interview with her today, and I hope you enjoy it!
Fantasy Cafe: First, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. I have to say I think you’re a very diverse author in many ways – you have written poetry and stories ranging from short to novel-length, and you have also written stories in many different fantasy and science fiction subgenres. Is this because you have a wide variety of interests or do you just enjoy challenging yourself? Do you think that writing shorter stories helps you on your longer work more than if you did only novels, and vice versa?
Elizabeth Bear: I think I get bored easily. I have a hard time writing for a long time in one venue, as it were, and find I need to change things up.
Short stories and novels are very different skills, I think–as different as short stories and poetry. A short story is not, for me, so much practice for a novel as a different but related art form–say, pastel and painting. I think some skills translate–sentence level writing, word choice, characterization, narrative structure–but they are often applied very differently.
Also, you can get away with stuff in a short story that would be exhausting to the reader at novel length.
FC: I’m also amazed by the volume and quality of work you produce in such a short amount of time and am halfway inclined to wonder if you have discovered the secret to stretching 24 hours into 48. Do you find it easier to work on multiple projects at once or do you prefer to work on one project at a time?
EB: It all depends. I try very hard not to be ritualistic about my work–I work, you know, and sometimes it’s long stretches on just one project, and sometimes it’s two or three in shifts. A lot of that depends on deadlines.
I’m actually not a very fast writer–but I’m a dogged one. If I sit down to write 8 pages, by god, I will do it if it takes twelve hours. And sometimes it does.
FC: Much of your writing shows a great love and knowledge for all kinds of world mythology – Norse in the Iskryne and Edda of Burdens books and all kinds in the Promethean Age books. How did you come to know so many myths and what draws you to them? I often wonder about how authors feel about readers who know the original material and can see the changes and twists you’ve made: obviously you’re writing so that your works can be appreciated on their own, but what do you think is different for people who know the older myths as well?
EB: I sort of grew up soaking in it. I was raised Pagan, and while I’m pretty agnostic these days, you never really escape the religion of your childhood. Also, I studied anthropology in college, which gave me a lot of exposure to other cultures. I think for those who are fond of the original myths (which of course often exist in many contradictory versions), there’s probably some fun or frustration in knowing what’s changed–
Basically, I guess the answer would be, I read widely and compulsively, and I try to bring in as good an understanding of original sources as I can before I start ripping them all to shreds and putting them back different.
FC: My gateway drug to your writing was Blood and Iron, the first Promethean Age novel. I love the idea of a “secret history” spanning the last few centuries and influencing the world featuring figures from all over the spectrum – King Arthur to William Shakespeare to Satan. What are some of the legends and historical events that you plan to include in the other 8 (or more) books?
EB: Sadly, those novels are currently without a publisher, so they may never be written. Promethean Age #5 *is* written, and I may eventually self-publish it. It’s set in Las Vegas, and has a lot of focus on our modern myths and stories. I’d like to do one that deals with folk songs, and another that deals with the mythology of World War II.
FC: When writing The Stratford Man duology about William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe you did a lot of related research. Did you learn any surprising facts about this period in history during your research? What is the strangest piece of information you’ve found yourself looking into for a story?
EB: The strangest piece of information I ever had to research was how you tattoo a penis. I’m sure that one’s in my FBI file somewhere.
I did learn all sorts of fascinating things about the Elizabethan and Jacobean period–but the most fascinating to me was how the same people emerged again and again, in different roles. Robin Poley, for example, a spy and informer, turns up again and again. As does Robert Catesby, before his final demise among the Gunpowder Plotters. (“Remember, remember, the fifth of November–” Guy Fawkes was the original Fall Guy, you see: Catesby was sort of the mastermind behind the thing.)
FC: How did you and Sarah Monette meet and become co-authors on A Companion to Wolves? Was it easy to make the transition from writing a book by yourself to working with another author? How different do you think A Companion to Wolves would have been if you had written it by yourself?
EB: I never would have written it by myself.
We were actually introduced by a mutual internet friend when I was working on The Stratford Man and she was writing her dissertation, which is on the revenge tragedy in Renaissance English theatre. And we started writing ACtW to kind of explore the idea of how a companion animal fantasy might work if certain things that are usually glorified or elided were taken on the nose, so to speak.
FC: In an interview with Clarkesworld magazine, you said “I have a thing I tell students one of the most important things you can learn about a character is what they want on their tombstone.” What are some of the epitaphs written for your own characters?
EB: Well, sometimes that would be telling. But Jenny Casey’s would be “You should see the other guy.” And Muire’s is “Fiat lux.”
FC: You mentioned in your blog that your favorite stories are usually the ones that make you bawl at the end. Why do you think the most tragic endings are more memorable than the happy endings? What are some books that you’ve read that have had this affect on you?
EB: Well, it’s not always tragedy that makes me cry. More often, it’s heroism in the face of impossible odds. The death-or-glory stand.
I love the end of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, for example. And the end of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. And the end of Watership Down. Diane Duane’s The Door Into Fire. Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane.
FC: On your blog, you said: “I think, in the final analysis, all of my books are about the fine dividing line between necessity and tragedy, and how real life doesn’t make distinctions between the two.” This summed up exactly what I loved so much about Blood and Iron when I first read it, as well as The Edda of Burdens novels. Is this recurring theme something you set out to do or did it just slip into your work? What is it about this particular division that interests you so much that it keeps appearing in your writing?
EB: Well, I think that answer ties into the answer of the previous question. It’s just something that gets me right where I live. You do what you have to do because you have to do it, and that’s heroism. Not, you know, because it’s a big adventure, but because it needs to be done. There’s a lot of dignity in that, and a lot of homey courage, and I feel like it gets overlooked a lot. When you think of the simple courage of a Rosa Parks or a Karen Silkwood, you know–that’s, to me, what’s most powerful about the human spirit.
I tend to write about people caught in terrible ethical dilemmas, and sometimes those are people whose own morals are somewhat compromised–as whose are not?–but who have finally reached a point where they have to say, “This far will I bend, and no farther.”
FC: Before we close this interview, can you tell us about some of the books or stories you’re working on now and what we have to look forward to?
EB: Oh, well. I just handed in the first novel of my first real epic fantasy trilogy. It’s called Range of Ghosts, and it forthcoming from Tor in 2012. I’m a little in love with this world–it’s a cod-Medieval Central Asian fantasy in the mode of the cod-Medieval European fantasy we see so much of. It’s fascinating to me that there are these vast empires and amazing trading societies, socially and technologically advanced, the history of which is almost absent from the Western psyche except when they are invoked as boogeymen–Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun. My Cossack ancestors claim descent from the Golden Horde, and it was incredibly interesting to bury myself in that history.
These are not, I hasten to say, historical fantasies. They’re high fantasy, but they draw their inspiration from sources usually ignored–or cast as the invading enemy–in most of the Western fantasy tradition. And it’s a largely unvisited realm, outside of the adventures of Conan the Cimmerian. The far East gets some attention, but not the vast empires of the Himalayas and the Steppe.
Other than that, I am writing book proposals and hoping. And also continuing work on Shadow Unit (www.shadowunit.org) which is a free, reader-supported, online collaborative present-day science fiction narrative, ongoing and semi-interactive. Emma Bull is our evil mastermind, and other writers involved include Holly Black, Chelsea Polk, Will Shetterly, Amanda Downum, Sarah Monette, and Leah Bobet.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for taking the time to answer some questions. I now have my first highly anticipated novel of 2012 – Range of Ghosts sounds amazing!