I promised you all a new author interview this week and I’m very pleased to be able to fulfill that promise! I mentioned a while back that we had interviews with Elizabeth Moon and Michael J. Sullivan coming up–here’s the first of them. Let me just start by saying I feel really privileged to be able to pick the brains of novelists and get their thoughts on the genre and writing itself. Everyone I speak to, whether they’ve been in print for years and had great success, or if they are self-published and just starting out, has had some really interesting and useful insight. You should go read our other interviews–if you don’t, you’ll be missing out on some important advice and experience.
So, I had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Moon, a bestselling sci-fi and fantasy author. Just some of her work includes The Speed of Dark (2003 Nebula Award Winner) and the Paksenarrion saga. She has collaborated with Anne McCaffrey, served in the US Marines and is an accomplished fencer.
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Hi Elizabeth, thanks for joining us today.
What first inspired you to start writing? Some authors have these romantic stories about digging out an old typewriter as a child and typing up a novel there and then–is this you or am I way off the mark?
Not typewriters–and not a novel–but I filled notebooks and piles of papers with stories, poems, and pictures. First attempt at a book was a truly awful story about my dog, when I was six. So bad it bored me, and I never finished it. (First lesson in writing a dog story: don’t start with the dog’s parents. Get to the good stuff.)
I am sure that one impetus toward writing books came from the two small books my mother wrote, illustrated, and bound for me when I was a preschooler. I remember watching her ink the drawings and text in one of them, and realizing that books were actually made by real people.
What are you reading at the moment?
Very little, because I’m deep in a book and don’t have much time. When facing deadlines, about all I get to read are the research sources for the project in hand and a few pages before going to sleep (for example all around the bed are several of the Liaden books by Lee & Miller, several “Valor” books by Tanya Lee, and books on knitting socks.) Research sources right now are stacks of books on late medieval-early Renaissance history, including a new area for me, maritime commerce and warfare of the period. When this book’s finished, or at least mostly finished, or I can’t stand it any more, there’ll be an orgy of book-buying, reading and re-reading. I have a (not little) list. Just not this moment.
Would you say you have a favourite book or author?
Not really, no… I have dozens and dozens of books and authors I feel I can’t live without but I can’t pick one. That’s why every room has overstuffed bookshelves and piles of books on the floor and every other horizontal surface in the house. Before writing took over most of my time, I was a constant reader and re-reader. I was (and still am) a fast reader with a very broad idea of what’s interesting.
As a published author, have aspiring novelists ever sent you their work for advice/review?
They’ve asked, but I’ve explained that I don’t do that. I just don’t have the time or, frankly, the skills. I wasn’t an English major and don’t have the right training to critique someone else’s work. When I’ve tried, it’s ended badly.
What qualities do you think are needed to be a successful published author?
Successful published authors need to be good at both the writing side and the business side–at least good enough not to make the big, career-killing mistakes. Neil Gaiman pointed out in his commencement address at The University of the Arts (http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address) that you can get by with any two of the following three things: good work, delivering work on time, and being easy to get along with. Two of those, you notice, fall into the “business practices” side…great writers who are both unpredictable in delivery and a pain to work with eventually can’t find publishers willing to put up with them. On the writing side, for successful publication (however you want to define either of those) it helps to be a good storyteller, write well enough that readers aren’t struggling with your meaning, and write fast enough so people remember your name the next time one of your books hits the shelves. (How fast they forget–and thus how fast you need to write–depends on how much they like your work.)
What would you say is the most enjoyable aspect of writing?
When the story takes off on its own and drags me along–it’s adventure, discovery, and creation all in one. It’s a rush unlike any other. Many other things about the writing life are enjoyable, but that’s got to come tops.
What was your road to publication like?
My road to publication was slow, wandering, and full of stupid mistakes, so I didn’t see any of my fiction in print until I was over forty. On the other hand, the years of writing, not being published and utterly failing at approaching publication in a sensible way gave me time to do many other things in the “Get a life” category, all of which turned out to be useful when I finally got moving as a writer.
What advice would you give to someone who is planning on taking that road now?
I think every writer has to find his/her own way, even if it sometimes seems backwards, crabwise, or downright impossible. Keep writing. Write what you love, what you’re passionate about. Write better. Read vast amounts of stuff–good, bad, everything that remotely interests you (and stretch those interests to include nonfiction, poetry, drama, a wide range of fiction.) Learn lots of unrelated skills–things like (but not necessarily including) how to work leather, change a tire, build a chicken house, do CPR, make bread, backpack in the snow. Everything is material. Every person you meet is a human geode: no matter how plain and lumpy on the outside, inside is a secret world of crystalline angles and points and colors. Use every sense you have, every day–notice not only sights and sounds but smells and textures and tastes and emotional atmospheres. And write more. And write better. (And then listen to Neil Gaiman’s speech one more time.)
Do you have a particular routine when you approach your writing?
Get up, turn on the computer, come back from the kitchen with bowl of cereal in hand, bring up the current book file.
If things are going well, I read the last paragraph, think, “Hot damn, that’s not bad,” and am writing before the cereal’s gone. The story wants to be written; I’m being dragged along in its wake. Love those days. Want more of them.
If things are not going well, I stare at the last paragraph in numb disgust and wonder why I ever thought I could be a writer. I knew it was bad when I quit the night before, and it still looks bad this morning. It resembles a story the way a cow flop resembles the crown jewels. It is the worst thing ever written. The internet wavers in front of me, offering escape. But… it’s a work day, and there are words to be written. Some days it gets better quickly; some days I’m still working on the daily word count at midnight.
It’s much easier to work on a train. I can’t sneak off to the internet, phone a friend, decide that the kitchen floor needs mopping. Unfortunately, days of train travel are expensive and create other problems, like running out of clean clothes, club soda, limes, and dark chocolate…
Is there anything that helps to get you in the right frame of mind?
Though I don’t think writers should depend on the right frame of mind–show up every day, sit down, do the work–the right music certainly does help me through the stuck periods. In talking to other writers, I’ve found that music choices are as individual as the books people write. Most of the time I write to instrumental classical–from Alfven to Zamfir, from Renaissance to (but not far into) 20th century. Words in songs drag my mind away from the story, so the only choral music I can use for writing is a) in another language and b) something our choir hasn’t performed.
Do you believe there is “a story in everyone” or does it take a special kind of person?
There’s a story in everyone but not everyone can write it. There’s both innate and acquired storytelling ability–it helps to have grown up around oral storytellers or have read a lot of good stories early, but there’s also the matter of ear. Even in a storytelling culture, some people just aren’t good at it. Others are. Aside from inheritance and immersion, writing takes someone willing to work at it, to learn and grow as a storyteller. Many people want to have written (be published writers) but don’t want to do the actual drudgery involved in writing on the days when it isn’t fun. So the “specialness” of writers is that they’re willing to keep at it.
As someone who has served in the military before, would you say that gave you an advantage when writing action and battle scenes?
Military experience certainly gave me an advantage in writing military-based stories, most particularly in the area of understanding how a military functions, and how military people relate to one another. The non-personal stuff you can find elsewhere–you can read military history, military science, etc to learn about tactics, strategy, command-and-control, weapons, etc–but the hardest thing to get right (as it is about any culture) is the people themselves. And even writers with military experience need to do the research and how to write what they know as a story. It’s not enough to lay out a creditable battle on a tabletop… you still have to be able to tell the story in a way that works for readers who have–and those who have not–any direct experience.
How much of writing is experience first and imagination second, in your opinion?
I’m not sure I can separate imagination and experience to determine which is the chicken, which is the egg, and which contributed most to the meal. We bring imagination to our experiences, adding interpretations and emotional tone. Experience feeds and grows our imagination. Imagination then leads us to seek new experiences. As for writing, experience can spark imagination (a night ride in the ambulance back from a hospital run triggered the idea of my first story in ANALOG, about an ambulance in space) but the technical details in the story were beyond my experience. Or imagination can be the starting point, the prime motivator, and past experience comes in only as support (“The Happy Frog”, a story that fell into my mental lap with unusual ease.) More commonly, imagination comes up with things which experience then has to test and figure out how to use. They’re partners.
What is the one moment in your career that you feel most proud of?
When someone told me that my book The Speed of Dark helped them recognize that a child brought to a police station was autistic–and they were able to find help for him and his grandparent. Any time a book has a real-life effect, that’s a thrill, but when it saves a child from a bad situation, that’s the best.
Could you share with us what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m working on the fifth and final book (so far untitled) of Paladin’s Legacy, the current fantasy group set in the same world as The Deed of Paksenarrion. It will follow Limits of Power (which is due out in June 2013 and now in production.) Coming back into the same story-universe as my first published novels has been a delight… the story just keeps unfolding and showing me new things. (Except on the days it doesn’t. I will now add another plug for the career-enhancing ability to stick with the writing when it’s less fun and more work.)
Thank you very much for your time.
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