Mary Robinette Kowal Interview

An interview with writer– and puppeteer! — Mary Robinette Kowal

Author and Hugo nominee for her story “Evil Robot Monkey.”

JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward reporting for With us today is Marie Robinette Kowal. The award winning author of “Shades of Milk and Honey” and Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Welcome to Washington.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Thank so much.

JMW: I’ve heard it said that people who write wonderful short stories seldom write good novels, and vice versa. The skills are too different that’s obviously not true in your case. I’ve read some of your short stories and their wonderful, and so is your novel. Congratulations on the Nebula nomination by the way.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Thank you.

JMW: What’s the secret to doing both well?

Mary Robinette Kowal: Well, I heard the same thing and I actually don’t take it’s true. I think that they do use the same skills. The differences is I think is in what you are attracted to. Stories that lend themselves well to the novel form are not stories that lend themselves well to the short form.

What happens I think is that someone who likes novel-length work. When they tried to fit a story into that constraint format are choosing works that just won’t fit into the short form. I think that the fundamental level is the kind of fictions that are attracted to, and understanding that in a short form you have a much more constrained palette.

You have to have fewer characters, fewer plot points, fewer scenic locations. But otherwise, on a line by line scene by scene basis and in terms of overall narrative arc, I think both of them employed the same skills sets it’s just how large a pallet you’re dealing with.

JMW: You chose to do with a much larger pallet for your novel, “Shades of Milk and Honey.” For our viewers who don’t know, it’s set in a world almost identical to the English Regency only with magic. What attracted you to that period, and it’s moors. Because it’s definitely a novel of manners.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Yes. I sometimes say that I learned more about writing horror and suspense from Jane Austen than from anything else. What she’s good at is the tiny details, and be in portents of that tiny detail. So I was reading, “Persuasion”, by Jane Austen and had just finished reading a giant epic fantasy. I was so caught up in Persuasion and I thought “Why can’t fantasy have these intimate dramas?” Because there are so many things that can go wrong in someone’s life besides evil overlord and life threatening situations.

I thought well I would like to read that novel. So I sat down to write it. The thing that is appealing about that is how specific the expectations of society are. They are almost like rules of Magic in some ways. You know it’s like, what were you going to the table, and if that order is violated that means something huge. There is that aspect of it that appeals to me, plus, I think the clothes are pretty.

JMW: You are not afraid of costume, I like that in a writer. I heard you did a fabulous costume for the Nebula awards.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Yes. Thank you. I did go in costume and I went back and forth because, you know that the tendency is for people to think. “Well, writers are serious, they should not do costumes because they have to be separate from fandom,” and I’m like “We are fans let’s be honest.” I write this partly because I like the pretty clothes. As a research project, I decided to see whether or not I could hand-stitch a dress.

JMW: Oh God.

Mary Robinette Kowal: So that dress was entirely hand-sewn. It was a cream figured silk. I did cheat and use a trim, rather than doing hand embroidery along the edges, but I did do some hand embroidery in other places, some hand beading. And I think that was a really good learning exercise. But one of the reasons I’m attracted to these things is that I come out of a theatre background, so costuming and dressing up just seems natural.

JMW: Yes, which segways into my next question. How does your background as a performer and as a master puppeteer figure into your fiction and your writing work? And obviously, this is a part of it.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Well there’s a couple of different ways. One is I that I spent 20 years in puppet theater. The thing that that does…

JMW: You were a child when you started.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Thank you. I’m 42. I mean I started in high school but I realize pretty quickly that if people were going to give me money to work with puppets that I was willing to take that money and as I say, with writing science fiction. Thank God I have puppetry to fall back on. But one of the biggest gifts that that gave me, there are two.

One of the biggest ones, is understanding the audience. Because when you spend that much time performing a show and getting the audience feedback and see tiny, tiny changes and how large of an effect a tiny change can have in an audience. It gives you a much better understanding I think of storytelling and pacing. So that’s one gift and that’s something I was able to translate.

The other gift I got from puppetry is an approach to character. In puppetry we say there are four principles, and once you understand the principles you can apply them to any style of puppet, after that point it just becomes no different than figuring out which way to turn the faucet when you’re in a new bathroom.

So the four principles are: focus which indicates thought, breath, which indicates motion, muscle which is the idea that the puppet is moving itself and meaningful movement, which means, since the puppet has very limited facial expression the body language becomes very important. so every movement so every movement should have a meaning.

And just as one example because I don’t want to bore you, focus which indicates thought translate directly into fiction. As a writer, I can show my audience member one thing at a time, and I have to rely on them to build that picture in their head. The order in which I shall things to them becomes very important. The other thing is that by choosing the items I’m telling the reader what my character is thinking about.

For instance if two people walk into the same room one of them will notice the crooked painting on the wall and the other will notice the stick of butter on the counter. It depends on who the person is and what’s important to them. Making those choices by choosing what my character focuses I can demonstrate what they are thinking about.

JMW: Absolutely, and I would think that motion would be very important in terms of… because too often people, the tell versus show, he felt sad, as opposed to his whole body slumped at her rejection, and that , I think is one of those four principles you were talking about.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Absolutely. With meaningful movement we have, in puppetry there are basically, you have aggressive, passive, and regressive motion, and again I’m not going to get into the entire lecture but aggressive motion is eating your interested in. These can be things that you are curious about, things that you’re happy about, some forms of anger. But we do it naturally where you lean in. And passive is what it sounds like. Regressive are the things that you aren’t interested in, leaning back.

JMW: Exactly.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Things that repulse you, things that frighten you, things that you’re just this interested in. The fan boy you can’t get away from. Those are all things we unconsciously lean back from, or turn away from. I will give you a tale.

When you are reading my fiction you will notice that my characters will sometimes lean in or walk towards, or turn towards and that is me using the body language of puppetry. I actually have to watch it because I can’t overuse that. It is something that I find myself doing all the time using that aggressive, passive regressive motion on the page.

JMW: Great. It’s good stuff for writers, we’re more of a general interest fantasy site, but the writers in our audience are going to be nuts on that, really, it’s great. Has it been hard to balance being a puppeteer, being a writer with being the Vice President of SFWA?

Mary Robinette Kowal: Yes, and no. One of the advantages of coming out of 20 years in theatre is that I’ve been a freelancer. So my life has been juggling a lot of different projects, and in many ways SFWA and writing, and puppetry, are all just different freelance gigs and so is just figuring out which deadline comes first. I like to say that I run my life by structured procrastination.

JMW: I like that idea. What’s next on your writing and performing horizons? I’m understanding there is a sequel to, “Shades of Milk and Honey”, coming out soon?

Mary Robinette Kowal: That’s true, in [late] 2012. I don’t have the exact release date, “Glamour and Glass”, which is the sequel to, “Shades of Milk and Honey”, will come out. And that is basically one of the characters, not surprisingly, gets married at the end of “Shades of Milk and Honey”.

Two of the characters obviously for matrimony, but the interesting thing about the year I set the book it’s 1814. Napoleon goes into exile. In 1814 which is not important in, “Shades of Milk and Honey”. But in 1815 the following year and this is history so it does not count as a spoiler. Napoleon comes out of exile. If one, say, happens to go to the continent for a honeymoon…

JMW: Boom.

Mary Robinette Kowal: There’s this little war called Waterloo.

JMW: Just a small blip on the radar.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Just a small blip, and say, you know, someone happens to go to Belgium for their honeymoon because they think Paris is too dangerous, and “Oh, that’s where Waterloo is, what could possibly go wrong?”

So, “Glamour and Glass”, is a little more swashbuckling than, “Shades of Milk and Honey”. Those books are designed to stand alone, but it obviously helps if you’ve read both of them. So that is the next book.

The first chapter is in the trade paperback, “Shades of Milk and Honey”, which comes out on June 7th.

JMW: Congratulations. One question about that, and I’m at production cycles, I know you’ve already turned in this book. What are you working on now?

Mary Robinette Kowal: What am I working on now? I’m working on a new novel called, “The Transfigured Lady”. It is in a completely different universe, it’s set in 1907, Nashville Tennessee. My main character is a young African-American actress who’s using magic to pass as white. To say that there are a lot of different ways a novel could go horribly wrong, as a writer would be an understatement.

I spent a year researching it and continue to research it while I’m working on this and working with a lot of people and trying to walked that line of dishes a lot of different things to juggle in this book. But it’s basically magic interracial romance murder and Vaudeville.

JMW: I like it already. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Mary Robinette Kowal: Anything I would like to add? I just had Novella come out in Asimov’s and I’m very happy about it.

JMW: Congratulations.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Thank you. It was the first time I had a cover story on Asimov’s and that was…

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Mary Robinette Kowal Interview
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Mary Robinette Kowal Interview
Mary Robinette Kowal Interview

With us today is Marie Robinette Kowal. The award winning author of “Shades of Milk and Honey” and Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

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Jean Marie Ward
Buzzy Mag Reporter & Reviewer

Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.
Jean Marie Ward
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