My Interview With Elizabeth Bear

9 08 2011

There are a handful of living, active writers that don’t need to sell me. Writers whose body of work has, story by story, quietly entered my conversation with the world around me until one day I read a story and I think, “this reminds me of another story,” and when I look to see who the authors of both were it turns out to be the same person and from then on I carry that writer’s style as a sort of benchmark from which I view all other work. These are also the writers that most often leave me haunted, shocked, tearful, or wishing that the short story was a novella, the novella- a novel. Honestly, I’m terrible with names, both in my personal life and in my reading life. Part of this stems from the fact that I read so much, often as many as twenty shorts a week, which puts me in at somewhere over the average “reader” but under the slush wrangler minimum. Still, as disengaged as I am from names and titles, a few have asserted themselves into my consciousness and the list of these is the same as the list of writers that have imposed their essence on my world view.

I will name them, off the top of my head and without consultation now: Paul J. McAuley, Ian McDonald, Aastair Rynolds, and the one I come back to most often and with the most anticipation, Elizabeth Bear. I will purchase an entire anthology if she has a story in it. I would purchase a cookbook if she had a recipe for vegetarian meatloaf in there. We go way back, Elizabeth and me. I can’t say how far back, I can only say that the style I first came to recognize as belonging to Elizabeth has been with me since at least 2005. Elizabeth hit her stride and never looked back starting (to my mind) in 2005. In 2007 she published the story “Tideline” in Asimov’s (May Issue) and I thought it was one of the most perfect stories I had ever read. Others agreed, it garnered her a Hugo award (in her bibliography on her website, she notes to the side of this listing “finally a story sold to Asimov’s”…indeed!). A year later, another sale to Asimov’s with “Shoggoths in Bloom,” which nabbed a second Hugo in as many years and an absolute flood of critical attention both popular and academic. That rocket ship statuette turns out to be very apt. So I watch as this writer goes from nagging pattern at the edge of my awareness to darling-star of the genre to being on the verge of… well whatever she wants to come next I would imagine. Something about her reminds me of Ursula Le Guin, and it has nothing to do with gender.

Less me talking, more her speaking. I gush no more, for now. Without further ado, I give you my short little interview with-

I think my readers will really want to know about your first real fiction sale, but there is rumor (by rumor I mean you say it on your website) that you “disavow” your first publication. So, given the gap of four years from that publication to the next- what happened in those four years that made you proud of your production?

I learned to write. 

Actually, I always think my work could be better. There’s a sweet spot of about two years ago where I’ve let go enough of the perfect book in my head to actually read my own old work and enjoy it. And then it ages out of that band and all I can see is how much I had to learn when I wrote it.

You’ve had a prolific decade, does Elizabeth Bear ever get rejected? 

Fairly often, actually. Several novel proposals so far this year, in fact.

Most writers I know cringe at earlier work with the cringes becoming progressively more manageable. You say you learned to write, but were there specific components to that process that you could recommend to those writers who are in your 1996 shoes right now?

Keep writing. Learn how to learn. Apply those techniques to your writing.

Or alternately: Right story. Right desk. Right day. Write better. 

So much of it is luck–but you can make your own luck by spending as much time as possible mindfully and directedly developing yours skills.

I think finding an opportunity to read slush–or critique a number of stories by other writers–is invaluable. Far more useful, really, than receiving crits one’s self. 

You’ve written several stories with other writers, and this is something that newer writers find difficult as it seems to conflict with the “writer as tortured, solitary laborer” Byronic trope. What do find enjoyable or helpful working in tandem? Are your writing partnerships “Batman and Robin,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Han and Chewie,” or “Thelma and Louis?”

I’m not sure what any of that last sentence means.

 But Byron was a pretentious twerp (albeit a pretty good poet) and his and Shelley’s romantic nonsense about inspiration and pining for one’s muse and suffering for art has probably cost the world more good writers over the past two centuries than just about any other toxic meme I can think of. 

Artists require community just as much as anybody else. That’s why you tend to find them in cohorts and clades–the Chelsea Hotel music scene of the 1970s; the Minnesota SFF scene of the 1980s. It’s all the same thing–we inspire and bootstrap each other, and we learn from each others’ examples and mistakes.

 The nice thing about working with a partner, frankly, is the ability to say “This part bores me. Can you write it?”

Is your other car a Boojum?

Nor a Gremlin, neither.

Just before Garner Dozois started screening my calls, he mentioned that the recent recession has actually helped portions of the sci-fi/fantasy market- particularly among the semi-pro e-zines. Which of this elite cadre of survivors stands out most to you? Do you have a favorite small press?

I’m fond of Ideomancer, having worked there, But quite frankly, I’m not at all up on the online semipro scene these days. 

I do think a thriving semipro scene is vital to the genre, though–short fiction is the equivalent of the club scene. It’s where we all get to know each other and our work, play with experiments, bat ideas back and forth.

 When I talk to people about a story you’ve written I often get interrupted with, “Wait, I thought you said it was science fiction?” All I can say is, “Somestimes she is, and somestimes she ain’t.” Sometimes genre writers get pigeonholed. Why didn’t you?

Stubbornness and a short attention span? 

It was probably a critical career error–I’d probably have much better numbers these days if I had just settled in and written a Jenny Casey novel every six months for the last five years. 

But I get bored easily.

For someone that is “non-genre” specific, your space chops are pretty darn tight. Would I be wrong to assume that you’ve dabbled in the Golden Age of sci-fi?

Dabbled in? I’m not sure what that means. But I’m a third generation SFF fan on both sides of the family; I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. So I’ve read a lot of the classics of the genre, or at least a fairly representative sampling.

 I was sort of a fan in isolation, though, for many years–so I’m not as up on fandom history.

You have a character in a story named Celsius Washington which I don’t think Thomas Pynchon could do better. I’m not asking a question, I just wanted you to know.

I do? Crap, I’ve forgotten him. Where is he? 

It’s in “The Red In The Sky Is Our Blood,” from the John Scalzi edited antho Metatropolis. A minor character, I only remember because I considered changing my pen name to “Fahrenheit Adams” for a bit so as to stop pissing off the editor Andrew I. Porter.*

Oh, right! And I remember being very pleased with that name when I came up with it. I used to know somebody named Kelvin, and it seemed like such a great name–

 I may use “Kelvin” someday, too. 

About twenty years ago I lived in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the B Dalton Bookstore at the nearby mall. One day the very intimidating manager told me that she could give me directions to the public library and that if I was going to loiter in her bookstore I could do better than loiter in the teenage boys club. I wasn’t really hurt by getting booted out the bookstore (Walden Books just opened up on the other side of the mall), I was hurt that science fiction was a boys club. It began years of genre-anxiety and closeted science fiction loving. These days I fly my sci-fi flag very proudly, but the accusation that the genre is a boys club has been leveled more than once. If you were to write a hateful letter to the mean manager of the B Dalton Books on my behalf, what would you say as to the accusation that sci-fi and fantasy is a redoubt for adolescent boys?

I’d probably just sniff sorrowfully and walk off. Life is too short to argue with assholes.

So I’ve been putting this question off because I know you hear about it all the time, but how has your life changed since having “Tideline” named “Story of the Week” on this block two years ago? Oh, and I suppose my readers will want to know what it was like winning that smaller prize, The Hugo. So what was that like to win it (the first time)?

Well, I was at home on the internet, watching a liveblog feed of the awards and possibly drinking some bourbon. It all had a dizzy unreality to it. And then there was a lot of congratulatory email to field. 😉

….and the second time….?

The only award I’ve won that I’ve been there to receive! As I recall, I burst into tears.

 I’m so cool.

Author you are loving right now?

Caitlin Kiernan.

If you suddenly turned into Elizabeth Care Bear- what would the symbol on your tummy be that would (when initiated by the energetic reaction known as “The Care Bear Stare”) fire rays of cuddly justice at perpetrators minor naughtiness? 

I’d be Biker Bear, and the symbol on my tummy would be a Hog.

Last question. I’ve tried several types of fertilizer, more water, less water, bone meal, blood meal and compost and nothing is working. I’ve been told you are the expert, so can you please, please, please tell me how I can get my Shoggoths to bloom?

They never bloom once transplanted.

 Sorry about that. 😉 

Thank you Elizabeth!

And thank you loyal readers! I’ve had a wonderful uptick in subscribers lately, half of them from the other side of the equator which is, as everyone knows, the best side fore spotting supernovae! If you are one of my new readers, enjoy this supernova. 

That is the Science of fiction. A bit of housekeeping: I haven’t had a story of the week in, well, months, and honestly I usually just talk about the stories I like so I am axing that page shortly. Peter M. Ball once admonished me for not posting any of my own work on here (beyond links when I’ve made a sale)  so I have started a page called, “The Unpublishables.” If you go to the new page you will find stories that I have failed to find homes for. Two so far, more in time.

Been having a great few weeks as far as production and I will update that saga later.

*esteemed editor Andrew I. Porter, upon my first pro-level sale sent me an email letting me know that I needed to include my middle initial in any future publications (I have done so), but I have been thinking about changing my pen name before it is too late. My middle name, Clark, though without the ‘E’ at the end is till sci-fi writery enough, so I think I am going to back that up by changing my last name to ‘Silverberg.” It would jive with my hacker alias “silverstairs.” Just a thought.

Hope to hear from you and please subscribe.

A final note: Mme. Bear was uber cool and approachable. I want to thank her from the bottom of my heart for making and taking time to answer belated rounds of questions. For me, this was an honor. If I ever gushed, E.B., it was only because I’m starstruck!

Thanks

Andrew Clark Porter

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