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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Hugo Award-winning author and editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch! Her work spans a vast range of genres and subgenres: science fiction (the Diving Universe and Retrieval Artist series); fantasy (The Fey series); science fiction romance (Assassins Guild series, as Kris DeLake); fantasy/paranormal romance (Fates series, as Kristine Grayson); mystery; and more, with many books under those names plus others! She is also the editor of the recent science fiction anthology Women of Futures Past, which contains stories written by women throughout the twentieth century.

Diving Into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Representation Matters

In mid-April, I’ll be teaching a class for professional writers on how to write science fiction. I assign a lot of world-building and character exercises, make the writers write several stories, and do a lot of what-if work. I love doing that, because all those exercises motivate me as well.

I also have to think hard about my approach to things. I tend to revise what I’m doing as an artist because my students inspire me, sometimes through their questions, sometimes through their determination, and sometimes by the light in their eyes.

This year, though, I’ve had added inspiration. I last offered this class in 2013. Whenever I teach, I assign reading that the students must do before the class starts. I do this, so that we’re discussing literature when we talk about sf, not movie tropes.

That year, a lot of writers had told me how sad it was that women never wrote science fiction. (Apparently, these people had no clue I was a woman…who wrote science fiction….) It had become a social media meme. A lot of women were talking about using pen names to hide their gender because sf wasn’t friendly to women.

I was stunned by this, because sf/f is incredibly friendly to women. I read sf/f by women when I was a girl, back in the 1960s. As Stephanie Burgis wrote in her post here last year, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t write sf/f about women or write sf/f under my own name, because I was reading books by and about women as long as I could remember.

Read her post, thanking the writers who came before. Because she’s right about everything, including this. She wrote, “Representation matters to all of us. It matters hugely.”

It does. And I hadn’t realized until 2013 that women had become mostly invisible in the sf/f field, especially in short fiction anthologies and in what the powers that be considered “good.”

When women told me that no women wrote sf (stunning me, because, hello! Me! Woman! SF writer!), I decided to prove those women wrong. I was going to assign my class a year’s best or something, maybe the Hugo awards volume, that would be from one of those 1990s years where women dominated the awards ballots.

And I discovered that I couldn’t find any anthology of classic sf with more than one or two stories by women in it.

Representation matters, remember. No wonder these young female writers thought they were blazing new trails. They couldn’t find the older trails, because there were none easily available. We women writers who came before were relegated to dusty old magazines or we were writing in genres that routinely got dismissed by the critics.

Women of Futures Past edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

So I edited a book called Women of Futures Past. The year I edited the book, I read a lot of great fiction by women. I found so much excellent work that I had to limit the book to the accepted historic start of modern sf (1926, Amazing Stories—a magazine that had a female associate editor on its masthead starting in 1927) and end with 1999.

I tried to use stories from each era, stories of different subgenres, and stories by writers everyone should know, but lots of modern readers don’t any more. Some of the writers are bestsellers, still working today, but not included in most women-only anthologies because these writers are writing space opera or not writing about gender issues. And I couldn’t include some writers no longer with us because the managers of their estates (all male) were completely uncooperative.

The book came out last year, and has received good reviews. The sales are good as well.

But more importantly, to me, it’s being taught in various places, including my upcoming workshop. Yes, I assigned that book, along with great books like Paula Guran’s 2016 Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas (which includes Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti,” which is one of my all-time favorites, period), and Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (which includes another favorite of mine, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing”).

In 2013, no one had published a novella-length sf-only anthology in a long time. And in 2013, no major American sf publisher would ever have thought of publishing any kind of sf short stories in translation, let alone publish an entire volume of translated short stories.

The world has changed, partly because of the uproar on social media. Yeah, I complained about current writers saying no woman had come before. As Eleanor Arnason titled a blog post on Strange Horizons, what were we? Chopped Liver?

And then I realized—a lot of us realized—that parts of our field’s history had become special knowledge, reserved only to those of us who had lived through the past. We women were here, but no one talked about us, no one collected our work in book form, no one pointed out what we had done.

We weren’t chopped liver. We had become wallpaper. Exceptions, even though we weren’t, really. Not at all. We were—and always had been—part of sf.

We just had to reclaim our place here. And, in the U.S., we also had to open the door to other cultures and other ways of thinking. We still have a lot to explore. But the exploration has started, finally, and it’s revitalizing the field.

2016: The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas edited by Paula Guran Invisible Planets: Contemporary Science Fiction in Translation edited/translated by Ken Liu

The field has changed dramatically since my personal revelation in 2013. Some new best-of editors have entered the crowded publishing field, and these folks are not just looking at the same-old same-old writers for material. These editors are finding stories from all cultures, all genders, and all walks of life. (Finally!)

It’s an exciting time to be an sf reader, and I think it’ll only get more exciting as the years progress.

The changes in the past four years have been dramatic. I hope they’ll be equally dramatic in the next four.

The field stagnated in the early part of this century—at least in its anthologies and best-ofs. I’m so happy to see the changes. SF should always move forward. Like everything, it takes a few steps forward, then a few steps back. But I feel like the field is moving forward again.

It sure makes my teaching job easier. Unlike 2013, when I only had a few anthologies to choose from, none of which pleased me, I had a plethora of good work to offer my students to show all the possible things that sf as a genre can do.

We’re in a renaissance. Or maybe a new world. And I think it’s marvelous.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Photo Credit: Lauren Lang
Kristine Kathryn Rusch isn’t just a Hugo-award winning editor. She’s a New York Times bestselling sf writer who has won or been nominated for more sf/f awards than she can count. She also writes mystery as Kris Nelscott, and romance, and anything else that strikes her fancy. Her female characters include Boss, a spaceship wreck diver who does her best to stay out of trouble, and Noelle DeRicci, who heads security for the Moon. Both women are older and more than a little prickly, sharing that in common with their creator, at least. To find out more about her work, go to kriswrites.com.

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Today I am delighted to welcome Leanna Renee Hieber! Her lovely debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, won two Prism Awards: one for Fantasy Romance and one for Best First Book. This book and its sequel, The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, were re-released in one volume titled Strangely Beautiful last year (with some new edits and scenes!), and the Prism-Award-winning prequel, The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess, is being re-released as Perilous Prophecy in June 2017. Her work also includes the Magic Most Foul trilogy beginning with Darker Still, the Eterna Files (The Eterna Files and Eterna and Omega, soon to be joined by The Eterna Solution—coming November 2017), and the Prism Award-winning futuristic novella Dark Nest.

Strangely Beautiful by Leanna Renee Hieber Perilous Prophecy by Leanna Renee Hieber Eterna and Omega by Leanna Renee Hieber

The Gothic as a Canary in Fear’s Coal Mine

I’ve spoken at great length on blogs, passionately at conventions, on writer’s panels and at universities around the country on the importance of the Gothic novel in literary history. I also find it an inextricable element of psychological history.

The Gothic is a subgenre within the classic horror, romance and/or thriller genres; one that explores an intense psychological narrative propelled entirely by dread, and often involving a paranormal element or supposition. The first Gothic novel is widely accepted by scholars as The Castle of Otronto, published in 1764, followed most famously by The Monk (the novel Jane Austen makes fun of in Northanger Abbey), and Mary Shelley takes us into the 19th century as Frankenstein links science-fiction with a Gothic feel. Edgar Allan Poe truly reinvents the genre with unrivaled genius for the purposes of the short story. The late 19th century was full of Gothic tales we still read and adapt endlessly today, thanks to the Brontë sisters, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson and more. In the 20th century, Gothic highlights include Leroux’ Phantom of the Opera, Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) and Victoria Holt’s massive body of work. (That is by no means an exhaustive list, here I’m focusing on some of the most famous examples and a few of my favorites.)

The Gothic style can lend itself to a romantic, eerie, sweeping tale or a more dreadful and horrific palette, depending on the story and age range. As a career Gothic novelist, I’ve gone from more lyrical and romantic (Strangely Beautiful) to darker and grittier (The Eterna Files) to a mix of both for a younger audience (Magic Most Foul series), but all my work has that central drive of dread and psychological focus. The environment of a Gothic is key, it has to be a character in and of itself.

Because of the focus on psychological impact, the drive of dread and fear and setting/environment, the Gothic becomes a mirror to society’s worries, and tends to crop up in time periods of significant uncertainty, fear, dread, strife and societal change. I think of the characters of a Gothic as canaries in the coal mines of society’s greatest fears.

Very often those canaries are women. In the classic Gothics, women’s already second-class citizenship, very limited freedoms and lack of agency puts them at greater risk for the incoming threats the story provides. Some historical Gothic tales used this as a mirror addressing the plight of women and any marginalized group in society, while some ran with abusing the already vulnerable, but still lifting up their sacrifices and deaths as part and parcel of the horror.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I use Dracula as a reference as it’s the most well-read example and the most frequently adapted story ever told. Dracula was written at the height of the Gilded Age, 1897. British, Western and American Colonialism and the effects of the industrial revolution were at a new, fraught height and the world was seeing globalization for the first time.

There was also a growing movement for women’s suffrage and the fight for equality. The “New Woman” as she was termed at the time, was born. Mina Murray chafes against the idea of the “New Woman” in Dracula, even though the story does center Mina’s strength and fortitude, a quality a self-proclaimed New Woman would have celebrated. However, Mina’s body, mind and agency are still subject to the men around her to the very end. Lucy doesn’t even get the chance to fight for herself. She is sexualized then, once Dracula turns her into a vampire, she is beheaded when she subverts the feminine ideal for a monstrous inversion. The punishments dealt to female sexuality in the traditional Gothic are often fatal. The Gothic is an extreme genre, but as history has never been kind to feminine sexuality, and we’re certainly not at peace with it today, the Gothic only serves to take what’s already there and turn it up full volume.

Stoker is fascinatingly complex. A true crafter of story that took his research very seriously, he was fascinated by folklore and took in a century’s worth of vampire fiction and all the lore that preceded it. I tend to refer to Dracula as a “capstone” work of vampire fiction. Health issues made Stoker’s childhood fraught with struggle. Somewhat of an Irish outsider in high-society England, having escaped a domineering father, he became manager of the Lyceum theatre in London, surrounded by other domineering presences. The bombastic yet brilliant Henry Irving, the first actor ever to be knighted, informed Count Dracula significantly. His relationship with women seems to have been a complex dynamic too. He admired many, such as Ellen Terry, Irving’s leading lady, and moved in a vast social circle of gifted performers and writers. His own marriage was a bit strained and he likely struggled with the “New Woman” much as Mina did. It’s my opinion Stoker put a great deal of himself into all of his characters, and echoed the tensions of his world across every page. Those tensions haven’t gone anywhere.

Dracula is a wonderful example of the Victorian id on full display. A particular adaptation that brings the book’s “fear of the other” to the fore is Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, an art film adaptation of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production. Dracula’s fear of the ‘other’ and the unknown is mirrored very clearly by today’s fears and uncertainty regarding globalized economies, social and ethnic changes, immigration, racial tensions and divisive strategies to overwhelm and seize power. We happen to be getting a harrowing refresher course on governmental cabals of greed, corruption and blatant self-interest, though the current magnitude puts the Victorian “Robber Barons” to shame.

Crimson Peak

The Gothic serves “through a mirror darkly” each and every age where it resurges, though truth be told, the Gothic has never gone away. Some of today’s more visible Gothic trends can be seen in Hollywood. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful was Gothic epitome. It showed great promise and incredible performances but failed in its final delivery, you can see that rant of mine here—spoiler warning. While visionary Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak wasn’t a box office success as marketing departments have no idea how to market a Gothic (It was released on Halloween billed as a jump-scare “horror” movie when it should have been billed as a “supernatural suspense/thriller” and released as an alternative Valentine’s Day film), it remains the best example of the Gothic I’ve ever seen, and it does right by every woman who struggled to find her own way out of the hell her story put her into.

In my work, I try hard not to repeat harmful tropes of historical Gothics, while still utilizing the structure, atmosphere, dread and titillating, dark, over-the-top allure of the Gothic. Simply mirroring a woman’s historical situation as trapped property, or her vulnerability and lack of agency, or her second-tier place in society including that of any minority group isn’t enough. She must overcome barriers by her choices, agency, determination and ingenuity. I want all my characters at any historic disadvantage to be as fully realized in their agency and opportunity to change the terrors around them as possible.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle The Last Serenade by Amanda DeWees Brimstone by Cherie Priest

As for a few notable suggestions in the Gothic vein, a show really fulfilling the demands of agency and representation at present is The Exorcist on Fox; a terrifyingly wonderful show with an empowered, nuanced, diverse cast. Also go see Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an important take on the horror genre. Horror and Gothic walk parallel paths. Keep your eye on Hugo-nominated author Victor la Valle (The Ballad of Black Tom) and his work. Amanda DeWees is doing the classic Gothic beautifully, and her doctoral academic background adds extra authority and breadth to her work. Be sure to pick up Cherie Priest’s new release Brimstone. Not only is Cherie one of my favorite writers working today, I know she strives for the same female-forward, inclusive narrative as I do, especially in Gothic and horror genres and Brimstone is one I’ve been looking forward to for some while. And please lift up all kinds of innovative voices around the world presenting their own Gothic-styled tales that reflect the undercurrents, preoccupations and shifting psyches of an ever-changing, ever-connected world, as all these stories can be beautiful, vital canaries fighting for air in dark mines, helping us see clearly through fun-house mirrors while entertaining us all in the meantime.

Happy Haunting,

Leanna Renee Hieber

LR Hieber Author Photo (by C. Johnstone)

Actress, playwright and author Leanna Renee Hieber writes Gothic Victorian Fantasy (Gaslamp Fantasy) novels for adults and teens. Her Strangely Beautiful saga, beginning with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists and garnered numerous regional genre awards, with new, revised editions from Tor Books now available. Darker Still was named an American Bookseller’s Association “Indie Next List” pick and a Scholastic Book Club “Highly Recommended” title. Her new Gaslamp Fantasy saga, The Eterna Files and Eterna and Omega, is now available from Tor. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies such as Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, Willful Impropriety, The Mammoth Book of Gaslamp Romance, featured on Tor.com and she writes for Criminal Element. A 4 time Prism Award winner for excellence in the genre of Fantasy Romance, Leanna’s books have been selected for national book club editions and translated into languages such as Complex Chinese, German and Polish. She crafts Gothic, Neo-Victorian and Steampunk accessories on Etsy via the Torch and Arrow shop. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City where she is a licensed ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire. She is represented by Paul Stevens of the Donald Maass agency.

Photo by C. Johnstone

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome fantasy author Sylvia Izzo Hunter! Her debut novel, The Midnight Queen, is an absolutely delightful story with magic, romance, secrets, a plot to foil, and two great main protagonists (plus one wonderful, outspoken little sister!). It’s set on our world if it had followed a different course of history and is followed by two more books in the Noctis Magicae series, Lady of Magick and A Season of Spells.

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter Lady of Magick by Sylvia Izzo Hunter A Season of Spells by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

How Fanfiction Made Me a Writer

As any member of my extended family will tell you, I was telling stories long before I learned to write (or read). Wherever we were living, my mom supervised me by ear: if I stopped narrating for more than half a minute, she knew I was Up To No Good. What they won’t mention—because it would never occur to them—is that most of my stories were fanfiction. I was Laura Ingalls; I was Dorothy Gale; I was Jim Hawkins or David Balfour or the unfortunate cabin boy from Kidnapped; I was Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn; I was Caddie Woodlawn. In Grade 6, as a Language Arts assignment, I began writing an epistolary novel, which ultimately grew to engulf more than a dozen exercise books (without ever reaching any sort of denouement); its narrator was a young Jewish girl who lived on the Lower East Side of New York in the early twentieth century. (I can’t remember her name, which seems like a bit of a betrayal.) She had many sisters; they Had Adventures, including brushes with potentially fatal illnesses. If you’ve ever read a book by Sydney Taylor, you will already have guessed where I—an 11-year-old in the mid-1980s, born and mostly raised on the Canadian prairies—got that premise and those characters. I knew you couldn’t just steal other people’s stories, of course, but I think I figured that if I diligently filed off the serial numbers…

See, I was a Jewish kid in a not-at-all-Jewish social environment, longing for representation (just one of many, many ways in which I didn’t fit in), and the All-of-a-Kind Family were the only fictional Jewish kids I’d ever met.

All 0f a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts

The next thing I started, worked on for years, and never finished was inspired primarily by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I borrowed from my mom’s nightstand when I was eleven-ish and officially read in English class in Grade 12, and secondarily by Willo Davis Roberts’ The Girl with the Silver Eyes and all the Shoah memoirs I read as a teenager, from the sweet and hopeful When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr to Elie Wiesel’s Night. This epic dystopian saga featured, in no particular order, anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing, orphans of war/resistance, plucky kids looking out for one another, a black-market economy, medical experiments, sweet teenage romances, telepathy, tragic death, cross-dressing, children surviving Gestapo-esque raids by hiding in kitchen cupboards, underage prostitution, and daring escapes. Years later, as some of my less pleasant life experiences started to need some kind of outlet, it also featured cancer, miscarriage, infertility, sexual assault, painful breakups, and an enormous amount of confusion about how relationships actually work.*

Talk about breaking down genre barriers: for at least 15 years, my writing was alternately and simultaneously fiction, fanfic, RPF, and journalling, all in the same series of exercise books, spiral-bound notebooks, and blank-books.

Sometimes—usually as class assignments**—I wrote short stories, which (more or less) had beginnings, middles, and ends. But my own writing, the writing I did because I wanted or needed to, was always open-ended, unending. I often wrote little vignettes, the understanding of which depended entirely on a deep background knowledge of one of the worlds I’d made up. (In the world of fanfic, I would later discover, “missing scenes” like this are practically their own genre.) I didn’t tell people that I wrote fiction; I didn’t think of myself as a writer, even though I wrote A LOT; and I would never in a bazillion years have let anyone (especially anyone I knew) read anything I wrote for fun.

And then, in the early 2000s, at the ripe old age of 20-something, I discovered—don’t laugh—Fanfiction.net. I had just read Tamora Pierce’s Immortals Quartet and wanted more of those characters, and by that time I had heard of fanfiction,*** so I went a-googling until I found some. I read a whoooole bunch of Daine/Numair fic. And then, one day, I wrote some. I made an account. I posted a story. (I say “story”, but that implies it had a plot; it didn’t.)

And people liked it.

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce Wolf Speaker by Tamora Pierce Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce The Realms of the Gods by Tamora Pierce

That first little story, which I now find deeply embarrassing, is still up there, because people liked it.

The next thing that happened was that, a few little vignettes later, I wrote something in parts, with a plot. I finished it. People liked it. Then I started writing a longer thing. People liked that, too, and commented wanting to know what happened next. I finished the story—the very first long-form thing I had ever written that had a beginning, a middle, and, crucially, an end. A couple of other writers in that fandom contacted me: Did I want to join their crit group? Yes, yes I did. And so the next time a scene and some characters spontaneously happened in my head, as they sometimes do, and I started writing that down, my new crit friends wanted to read what I’d written. And having read and critted it, they wanted to read more. They read my non-fan stuff, and I read theirs, and we all taught each other an enormous amount, and by the end of 2007, I had written a book. And I had showed it to people, and I had survived the experience.

Now, it wasn’t a book I could sell, not yet—that took five more years, several more drafts, a lot of query letters to agents (and almost as many rejections), even more drafts, and extensive editing by my agent and my editor. But if it hadn’t been for honing my skills in the safely anonymous playground of fic, the self-confidence I gained from positive reactions to my stories, and the other writers I met in the comments section (who helped me learn to write better and also taught me how to skate through a check, so to speak), it almost certainly wouldn’t have been written at all.

Writing someone else’s characters in someone else’s world pushed me to go beyond what I was already good at (inventing characters, writing dialogue) and work on what I had more trouble with (plot, action, story arc). Through writing alternate universe fic—putting those characters in a new setting while keeping them recognizably themselves—I got better at understanding and conveying what, deep down, makes a given fictional person who they are. Fic writers push all kinds of boundaries all the time, and as a deeply anxious person I think I needed to see people trying these {brave | ridiculous | inexplicable | hilarious | disturbing | off-the-wall} things and (mostly) being supported by their peers in doing so. And putting my pseudonymous fic out there for the whole Internet to (potentially) see and criticize was, though I didn’t realize it at the time, the first step towards being able to send out query letters and partials to actual agents with my real name and address attached to them—not to mention the crucial writer skill of getting a 15-page revision letter in your inbox and going “Oh, OK, here are some helpful comments” rather than “OMG WHAT WILL I DOOOOOOO”.

The popular image (or one popular image) of the writer is of a creative genius / tortured artist / “crazy” person / Certified Intellectual toiling away in splendid isolation until A Book is produced. Of course everyone’s different, and of course there will always be a lot of sitting down by yourself at your keyboard (or whatever) and Making Shit Happen on the page; but for me, community has become key to the writing process, and to my growth, confidence, and identity as a writer—and fandom is where I first experienced that sense of supportive-plus-challenging community among writers and readers.

I sort of hesitated to make fanfic the subject of this post, because I know of much-famouser-than-me pro writers who write fic (or used to write fic) and get a lot of grief about it. But this is a post I was invited to write for Women in SFF, and the writers I’m thinking of are, like me, women. It would be nice to suppose that the experiences they describe are unconnected to gender, but let’s be real: unpaid fan writing is still a majority-female space (or, at any rate, it’s thought of as such), and I think it would be naïve to suppose that’s not a big part of why it’s so often mocked and so seldom taken seriously.

I also don’t want to suggest that writing fic is a valid and valuable activity only as some kind of rehearsal for or stepping-stone to “real” writing—which is an argument I hear fairly often and with which, for the record, I strongly disagree.

That said … I have written fic, and I still write fic when I feel like it, and I’m quite proud of some of it, nor have I tried particularly hard to conceal my fic-writing tendencies—so, I said to myself, why start now? (I realize I may yet regret that decision.)

So, to close out my patented “Yay fanfic!” rant (which all of my friends have heard at least once before), here are some true things about me and fic:

  • I am 100% a better writer because of the tens of thousands of words of fic I’ve written in the past dozen-ish years.
  • I am 100% a better writer because of the mutual critique I’ve engaged in with fic-writing friends.
  • I still read fic, though my fandoms of choice have changed, and there are fic writers I admire every bit as much as my pro-writer idols.

And, finally:

  • Fanfiction helped make me a pro writer, but even before that happened, it had already made me a writer. Fic writers are writers—whether or not they (we) ever “go pro” or even have any interest in doing so—and if you write fic, you are a writer, and don’t let anyone make you believe you’re not.


*I also wrote what I have since learned to call “RPF” [for the uninitiated, that’s “real-person fic”] about myself and my high school friends. This portion of my literary output, however, remains much, MUCH too embarrassing to be discussed outside my own head. Ever.

**I even had one prof, in a course on satire in my second year of university, who assigned us to write a story or poem in the style of one of the authors we’d read in the course, which I think is the closest I’ve ever come to being asked to write fic. That prof was awesome.

***Fanfiction by some semi-accepted contemporary definition, that is. I had of course been consuming fanfiction for well over a decade without realizing it, since I spent a non-trivial amount of time from Grade 10 onward reading and/or watching Shakespeare plays.

Sylvia Izzo Hunter Sylvia Izzo Hunter lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her spouse and daughter and their slightly out-of-control collections of books, comics, and DVDs. Over the course of her working life she has been a slinger of tacos, a filer of patient charts and answerer of phones, a freelance looker-up of unconsidered trifles, an Orff-singing stage monk, and an exam tutor, but has mostly worked in not-for-profit scholarly publishing. When not writing spec fic, she works as a freelance editor and writer, sings in two choirs, reads as much as possible, knits things, and engages in experimental baking.

Sylvia’s favourite Doctor is Tom Baker, her favourite pasta shape is rotini, and her favourite Beethoven symphony is the Seventh.

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Today I’m delighted to welcome librarian and blogger Maureen Eichner! She can be found sharing her love of reading at her wonderful blog By Singing Light, where she discusses a variety of books including lots of speculative fiction (as you can see from her favorite authors page). She has excellent taste in books and authors, and I very much enjoy seeing her take on the works she reads!

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When Women Teach You To Love Fantasy

I learned to love fantasy in my middle school library, a long room on the second floor of the school which is always, in my memories, filled with light. My parents were not fantasy fans, but I took to it immediately. It satisfied a hunger I hadn’t known I felt. The librarian, Mrs. Hughes, gave me special permission to check out as many books as I wanted, so for three years I stuffed my backpack full and snuck them into the house.

One of the great things about that library is how haphazard the collection was. From an adult and professional point of view, I kind of wince over the fact that Rosamund Pilcher was side by side with JK Rowling. But at the same time, I felt a freedom to read all kinds of books: books that challenged me, and books that comforted me. Books that were too old for me and books that were too young.

And of course I devoured Lord of the Rings over and over. I read Lewis, and Piers Anthony. But crucially, my definition of fantasy, my understanding of what the genre fundamentally is was formed by the books I read at that point. And most of those books were by (white) women; most of them were what would be considered YA today. Here are six of those authors, and what I learned from them.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper Chrestomanci Volume 1 by Diana Wynne Jones The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Susan Cooper: From the Dark Is Rising series, a sense of the past always being part of the present, of magic always being present just under the surface of the world. Also: children working together in the face of adult indifference can save everything. And, to be fair, a sense of crushing disappointment when your favorite series doesn’t end the way you wanted it to. (#Janedeservedbetter)

Diana Wynne Jones: The sheer funniness of it all. There are plenty of authors who write fantasy as Serious Business, but DWJ threw in genetically modified griffins, and walking castles, and gaudy dressing gowns. Her books don’t lack heart, but they also don’t take themselves too seriously. Also, the way the mundane jealousies and worries and cares don’t go away just because you’re also fighting an evil enchanter.

Robin McKinley: That the beloved fairy tales I was raised on could be reimagined and made into something new and beautiful and rich. And that sometimes you find your place almost by accident, that it’s okay to return to a favorite story again and again, that girls can go on adventures and also fall in love.

Elizabeth Marie Pope: Via The Perilous Gard and Kate Sutton, that girls can be prickly and snappish and brave and smart and get the guy. That you could mix history and fantasy to marvelous effect, and that forests have power. That if you keep your head and use whatever you’ve learned, sometimes you can find a way out by the oak leaf, with never a bough.

Tamora Pierce: A sense of girls doing things in different ways (even though I wasn’t drawn to Alanna at all, I loved Kel and Daine both). That books can make you uncomfortable and push you to consider your own beliefs and assumptions and also be valuable.

Anne McCaffrey: Primarily, that it’s possible to deeply love a thing and also know that it is flawed. Because dragons, which I always love, but even at the time, I could see the problematic aspects of the books. Also, that books can be not quite fantasy and not quite science fiction, which was mind-blowing.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope First Test by Tamora Pierce Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

Now, I want to note that all of these authors are white, and fairly privileged, just as I am. At the time, I don’t believe I was aware of any SFF being written from marginalized perspectives. This is a problem, and it isn’t as much fixed as we often want to think. However, I do believe that the feeling of seeing myself reflected in books for the first time reinforced the importance of having stories where all readers see themselves truly reflected.

From these authors and others, I gained a sense of fantasy as contentious, and sometimes flawed, and sometimes outright wrong. A sense that fantasy can and should push you a little bit, asking you to reconsider your world and your framing of it. I learned the bones of high fantasy, but also the bones of everyday fantasy, of stories rooted in the quiet details. I learned that the world is worth saving, but that your family is worth saving as well. I learned that stories about and for girls—girls like me—are important. Justina Ireland has said that, “Women built this castle” and they certainly built my love of fantasy and what the genre can do.

Maureen Eichner Maureen Eichner is a children’s librarian and long-time book blogger, who lives in Indiana. She loves fantasy and hates Lord Byron. Predictably, she named her cat after a fictional detective and is constantly battling an overflowing TBR shelf.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome fantasy author Katherine Arden! Her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, was released early this year and is absolutely fantastic: it’s atmospheric with lovely writing, and it has a compelling heroine at the center of it all. Since it’s my favorite 2017 release and one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, I’m incredibly excited that there will be two sequels—and the first of these, The Girl in the Tower, is scheduled for publication in January 2018!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

My first books were dusty, yellowed hardbacks with the pages stitched in, and one of my earliest memories is the smell of old paper. I started reading early, and once I got the hang of it, you could not pry books from my hands. I would finish one and reach for the next, as if they were Oreos. Old and dusty Oreos.

Why old and dusty? In those days before YA, there were not many options available for a precocious reader between books for children and books for adults. My parents, doing their desperate best to feed my book habit, started steering me toward novels written before 1930 or so; mostly, I think, because the romance in older books leans towards euphemism and not bodice-ripping.

I had a passion for adventures—fantasy, history, or science fiction, it didn’t matter. So I happily spent my childhood pinging from old copies of Treasure Island to The Three Musketeers to Dracula, Captain Blood, and Tarzan, barely aware that there were people today, right now, also writing books. Who cared? I had all the books I needed.

But in my middle school years, I began vaguely, and then painfully, to notice that the female characters in all my beloved books didn’t really do—anything. Mina and Lucy, Arabella Bishop, Constance Bonacieux and Jane Porter—they spent a lot of time getting rescued, or being beautifully helpless. However, none of them ever made a decision that drove the plot. Or even affected their own lives. That sort of thing was left to the hero.

It annoyed me. I always wanted to be Tarzan. I never cared about being Jane.

This irritation, the beginnings of youthful independence, and a very good local librarian, finally acquainted me with authors writing in my own decade. I was twelve or so when I discovered characters like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna of Trebond, Robin McKinley’s Aerin Firehair, just two examples of many. I discovered young heroines who did things.

I still remember my delight when I saw the cover of Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, with an armored girl on a white horse, facing a dragon. I opened that book and started reading and after that Tarzan never had a chance.

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

My particular conundrum is not one faced by young girls reading today. In 2017, girls have a legion of heroines for role models: powerful women, who create their own stories. We have come a long way since Dracula or Dumas. Passivity is not considered a prerequisite for femininity.

However nowadays it seems to me that young women reading face another problem. And that is that so many heroines are—perfect. This modern heroine is perfectly beautiful, of course, but also modestly unaware of her beauty. She must possess unusual if not superhuman skills, be chosen for a special destiny, and finally be utterly oblivious that every man in the entire book is madly in love with her.

Demanding perfection of women—even fictional ones—is in some ways the third cousin of the marble passivity of their 19th century forebears. It is just as impossible, just as unrealistic, just as restrictive.

I didn’t want to land in either extreme when I finally got around to trying my hand at a book—with a heroine—of my own. But when I started writing my own first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, I had no idea how to walk the line between passive and perfect, between flawed and extraordinary. How does a writer balance the desire to write someone remarkable, with the equally powerful desire to create a human being, not some paragon?

My book is set in 14th century Muscovy. How do you make a woman powerful, writing about an era when women were not allowed power?

My answer, for what it’s worth, was to try to give my heroine something that I had rarely encountered in any of my reading, recent or not.

I gave her self-acceptance.

Such a small thing, right? Well, in some ways yes. In other ways no. My main character, Vasilisa, is a strange girl; she sees the world differently than other people. But she refuses to be afraid, and she refuses to doubt her own senses. No matter who tells her otherwise (and at one point in the novel, pretty much everyone is telling her otherwise) she accepts herself and the world as it is.

That, I came to realize, was what I wanted most from a main character. I wanted to write about a person who, even when she is afraid, or lonely, never thinks—it literally never occurs to her—to be anything less than she is, or to live her life with anything less than integrity.

It seems to me that our heroines—even the brave ones, even the beautiful perfect ones, even the modern ones—are too often drenched in self-doubt.

It seems almost to be baked in the modern girl’s DNA. If you are extraordinary, of course you must long to be ordinary, to fit in, to be a normal girl with a normal life. But if you are ordinary, of course, then you berate yourself for not being beautiful enough, clever enough.

It’s a conundrum that we—and our heroines—just can’t win.

Except by being ourselves. Bravely. Unquestioningly. No matter how hard it is.

Katherine Arden Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

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Thank you to all of last week’s guests for another great week! It’s now time to announce guests for Monday–Friday, but first, here’s a brief summary of last week’s articles in case you missed any of them:

Yesterday I also announced a giveaway of one book from the list of recommended science fiction and fantasy books by women. Click here for more details.

And now, I’m excited to announce this week’s schedule of guest posts, beginning tomorrow!

Women in SF&F Month 2017 Week 3

April 17: Katherine Arden (The Bear and the Nightingale)
April 18: Maureen (By Singing Light)
April 19: Sylvia Izzo Hunter (The Midnight Queen, Lady of Magick, A Season of Spells)
April 20: Leanna Renee Hieber (Eterna Files, Strangely Beautiful, Magic Most Foul)
April 21: Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Women of Futures Past, Retrieval Artist, Diving Universe)