Interview with author Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth: Hello, Jean Marie.
Jean: We’re so glad to have you here. The second volume in your “Lotus Kingdom” saga, “Red-Stained Wings” will be in the stores next week. “Lotus kingdom” is set in the same world as that of your earlier series, the “Eternal Sky” books. How do the two series relate to each other? Can they be read independently?
Elizabeth: They can absolutely be read independently. One of the things that I was interested in doing in that world, which also contains the Bijou stories, “Bone and Jewel Creatures” and so forth, is that something that often bothers me about epic fantasies, the worlds feel very static. The technology level is the same for 1000 years. The social climate is the same for 1,000years. And what I wanted to do with the book set in this world is show pieces of not a real history, but a history in which technology develops and societies develop and religions develop and things change over time.
And the “Lotus Kingdom” books are quite a distance away in physical space from the “Eternal Sky” books, and they are also about 50 years away in temporal space. There was only one continuing character between them who is a young person in her 20s in the “Eternal Sky” books and a grand dame in her 70s in “Lotus Kingdom” books.
Jean: That’s so cool. It’s nice to be able to follow a character that long. “Red-Stained Wings” follows hard on the heels of your science fiction novel, “Ancestral Night.” You’ve said that you write about things that bother you. What was the bothersome issue that inspired “Ancestral Night?”
Elizabeth: Oh, so many bothersome issues. I write when I want to have arguments with myself. When I discover things that I don’t feel like have simple yes or no answers. And this is a book that’s about trauma. It’s about mental health, it’s about societies, it’s about governance. One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is that our current models of representative democracy is the technology that has been essentially unchanged for 2000 years or more. And they are still the best model of governance that we have. However, as technology has improved, the thing we don’t remember is that government is a technology. It’s a social technology. And I wanted to explore what we could do in terms of better forms of governance or more egalitarian forms of governance that preserve the rights and freedoms of as many people as possible. But I didn’t want to write a utopia because I sort of feel like utopia depends on where you point the camera. Everybody’s utopia is somebody else’s dystopia.
Jean: You talked about that in “Carnival.”
Elizabeth: Yes, I did. Yes. And so one of the things that was very exciting for me in writing this book was to posit a form of government based on mass decision-making technologies and decision modeling and that sort technology that’s being used more and more in the IT sector and to do things like find down submarines. Because it turns out that if you take a lot of people’s guesses, you can sometimes come up with a pretty accurate result depending on how you work your statistical modeling.
Jean: The algorithm.
Jean: The almighty algorithm.
Elizabeth: The almighty algorithm. Of course, the almighty algorithm on Amazon keeps telling me I might like my husband’s books.
Jean: They might be right.
Elizabeth: They might be right. They might be right.
Jean: You also have a rather interesting take on faster-than-light travel in the book in addition to the social technology aspect of it. Could you tell our viewers a little bit about that?
Elizabeth: It’s actually a fairly old idea in engineering and science fiction, the Alcubierre drive. And there’s an engineer at…The title of the book says little homage to a gentleman named Sonny White, who’s an engineer at NASA who has some ideas for how to make the Alcubierre drive, which in the book I call the Alcubierre-White drive because I had this conversation with him and it’s sort of a little gentle little nod to his help about how to make it work in such a way that it is feasible in terms of power consumption.
Because the problem with the Alcubierre drive is that it uses far more energy than we could possibly generate in any feasible fashion other than possibly harnessing a star. So, but if you could make that a little more fuel efficient and it’s essentially a work drive. It’s a technology that allows you to…the ship itself actually stays stationary in absolute terms and you sort of fold space up around yourself which provides a lot of the plot of the book. I think sometimes space stays folded when you don’t intend it to.
Jean: Yeah. Or it folds in different directions like the fabric of your skirt when you sit.
Elizabeth: Indeed, space has static claim.
Jean: Oh God. Oh, I need brain bleach now.
Elizabeth: No. Gravity space-time has static claim.
Jean: Oh, wonderful. In addition to hard science fiction and epic fantasy, you’ve written steampunk, moral of crafty and horror. How do you find and sustain so many different genre or sub-genre specific voices?
Elizabeth: I have a short attention span. That’s sort of my stock answer. But the fact of the matter is that I find that different stories lend themselves to different narrative styles that develop…when I’m writing a first-person character, for example, developing a voice for that character is an intrinsic part of the character themselves of who they are, of how they develop, of how they move through the story, of how they relate the story. And somebody or another, I don’t remember who said that style is what you can’t help doing and voice is what you choose to do as an author. And I think that there are certainly stylistic things that I can’t help doing, some of which drive me crazy and I try to eradicate. Voice things are things like choice of verbs, choice of tense, how the sentences are constructed. And I think most writers learn how to do that just in dialogue so it’s just an extension of that because characters probably should sound different from one another when they’re speaking. So you just extend that into the end of the narrative voice as well.
Jean: I’ve heard somebody say you should be able to tell which character you’re reading just by the dialogue.
Elizabeth: Not always the case, but there’s certainly things that one character or another just wouldn’t say or wouldn’t say in that particular way.
Jean: You’ve published a lot of fiction and nonfiction since 2001. Have you ever experienced burnout and if so, how’d you get your Mojo back?
Elizabeth: The way the publishing industry is set up, we are really encouraged to produce as much as possible. Constantly keep something in front of the eyes of the viewers. If you’re self-publishing, it’s even more extreme because they want something every month or every three months. There’s an industry push to, you know, have a book out every nine months, have a book out every year. And that can be extremely hard and draining because it turns out that writing novels is a self exhaustive act and getting that…you have to have time to refill the well and you also have time to relax. You have to have time to let your subconscious work on things and just take a day off once in a while or you lose your creativity. Everything, you know, incrementally becomes harder and harder and harder, and eventually, you realize that…
I’m not sure I’ve ever really experienced what I would call writer’s block, but I certainly had spates where I was hyper-critical of everything I was writing and nothing was any fun and everything seemed terrible and I hated my job. And that’s not a great place to be. And being self-employed, there’s also this enormous drive to work every minute of the day. That’s the freelancer’s curse is you feel like if you are not working, you’re missing opportunities. And since the pay cycles are so erratic, if you think, “Well, you know, I may not get paid again for six months, I better take this job even though I’ve just done five jobs in a row and I really want a day off.” When that happens, when you find yourself in that sort of anxiety cycle of, “How am I gonna pay the rent? And how am I…?” You know, you’re also not doing your creativity any favors.
And just like forcing yourself to set hours. I’m gonna work… And also creative work is very hard to do more than about four or five hours a day because it’s very draining. But if you say, “Okay, I’m gonna write or edit for four hours in the morning and then I will do administration work four hours in the afternoon.” And then convince yourself that that actually consists an eight hour work day and now you’re allowed to go play video games, which is the hard part.
Jean: Or ride the horses.
Elizabeth: Or ride the horses, or go for a walk or take your spouse out for dinner or you know, call your mom or do any of those things instead of spiraling down into the hole of…you actually get more done because you do the job. You put the job away and then you come back to it the next day and you’re fresh and you’re not exhausted and you’ve gotten seven hours of sleep instead of three and you know, so everything works much better when you don’t drive yourself to distraction with anxiety.
Jean: In other words, be kind to yourself.
Elizabeth: Be kind to yourself. Self Care. Self-care is not just donuts and pizza on the couch. Sometimes it’s, you know, getting a little exercise and taking a nap.
Jean: And putting something in the well like reading.
Elizabeth: Yes, exactly.
Jean: Yes. So, are you still publishing nonfiction and teaching?
Elizabeth: I am still publishing nonfiction. Nonfiction has always been sort of an occasional thing for me. Right now I have a newsletter and a Patreon, both of which have some nonfiction going on in them. The Patreon I’m using to slowly write a book on constructing narratives and surviving the publishing industry.
Jean: So, teaching?
Elizabeth: Teaching. Yeah. And I do still teach it Viable Paradise, a writing workshop every year and other things as they come up. I’ve done a couple of stints at the Clarions and at Odyssey and I enjoy it a lot. And I’m also involved in the SFWA Mentorship Initiative. So I have mentees, not really students, colleagues at an earlier stage of their professional development than myself that I sort of I’m helping to guide through the process of things like getting an agent or finishing a manuscript for the first time. It’s very rewarding.
Jean: Oh, that’s cool. What are you working on now?
Elizabeth: I am most of the way through a book called “Machine,” which is in the same universe as “Ancestral Night.” And it’s about a physician who is the futuristic equivalent of basically a life star physician, a flight doctor. Except it’s in deep space and the ambulance ship is a faster-than-light vehicle. And often the work of retrieving people from damaged ships in space stations requires fairly heavy rescue. So it’s one part heavy rescues, firefighter specialists type, one part emergency trauma doctor. And she discovers because it’s got some medical thriller routes. I like to borrow plot structures from other genres. Of course, she discovers a vast conspiracy.
Jean: Absolutely. Why not? I mean, really. Okay, we’re at the end and I just want to ask, is there anything you’d like to add?
Elizabeth: I think that’s it.
Jean: Great. Well, thank you, Elizabeth, and thank you for “Buzzy” magazine.Elizabeth Bear
Always a Science Fiction fan and dabbler in writing she had thought herself too practical to pursue a career in the field. Before coming to Buzzy she spent over 30 years in the travel industry, then one day decided it was time to spread her wings and plunge into publishing. Everyone she knew thought she had gone slightly daft but as this was not the first time they had expressed that opinion she took the red pill anyway and now spends all of her time putting together projects that make each day a pleasure.
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