Drilling down to success: Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

As a successful pop culture critic and writer, Charlie Jane Anders is a woman I am much in awe of. The co-founder and long-time editor of popular website io9 (the best place to find ‘geek’ news on the internet), Anders is no stranger to fiction writing either, publishing loads of short stories, and winning a Hugo for her novellete, Six Months, Three Days. The latter is being adapted for TV by NBC. She also organises ‘Writers with Drinks’, a monthly event where writers of different genres come together to read from their work, 

Last year, she released her first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. She’s recently quit her post at io9 in order to focus on writing her second novel. Here, I speak to her about All the Birds, where she sees the genre of fantasy going, and balancing critical and creative writing.

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1) Cliched question first! How did you come up with the main storyline? Was it something you mulled over for a long time?

This was definitely something that took a LONG time to come together. I started out with the idea of “witch and mad scientist,” and it was super vague. I originally thought of it as just an excuse to smush together a bunch of genre tropes and play with lots and lots of story ideas from science fiction and fantasy, from Harry Potter to Star Trek. In the end, though, the book wound up not having a lot of commentary on tropes — instead I got obsessed with the relationship between the two main characters. I stopped thinking of “mad scientist” and “witch” as representatives of different genres, and started thinking of them more as different worldviews that it was interesting to juxtapose.

2) How much of the environmentalist streak in the book (that I personally loved) is a personal philosophy? Is Patricia and the witches’ fears of a teetering world something that you find yourself thinking about?

The environmentalism in the book came from a couple different things. First off, I feel really strongly that if you’re going to write about a near-future world, you have to deal with the effects of climate change and extinctions (or else come up with some explanation for how we solved them somehow.) Because ecological problems are in our future, pretty much for certain, according to scientists, and you can’t speculate about the future without taking them into account. And secondly, I started to think of the “mad scientist and witch” storyline as being about technology and nature — and thinking about the environment seemed to be one good way of talking about the impact of technology on nature, and the ways that the two things go together. But I was also super, super careful to keep it ambiguous as to whether we actually were teetering on the edge of some kind of apocalypse. Various people in the book believe this to be true, but there are also people think we’re just going through a rough adjustment, and we’ll come out the other end. The fears of some kind of apocalypse had to feel plausible enough to drive people to take some extreme action, but I don’t think you ever know for sure how bad things will get, or how quickly, in real life. So it didn’t feel realistic for us to know for sure if the environment (or civilization) was actually going to collapse.

3) The narrative of the book grows up quite dramatically, from the 6-year-old Patricia’s perspective to the 20-somethings who finally exit its pages. How hard was it to put yourself in those differing mindsets? Was it something you had to work on a lot?

I love writing about kids, and I love writing about adults. The hard part was probably making these characters feel like the same people at different ages. I felt like it was really important to show them growing up and still dealing with the same questions they struggled with as kids. But it was a really ambitious thing to take on, and it meant really getting to know these characters, so I could build in lots of little things that made them feel like they were still the same people, without being super blatant or anything. It was super tricky, and took a TON of concentration in rewrites.

4) Patricia gets called down a lot for “Aggrandizement.” Was this a sort of inside joke on the “hero complex” that so many fantasy heroes (and not a few fantasy fans) have, and its lack of relevance in the “real world”? What was the thought behind it?

I hadn’t thought about the idea that the “Aggrandizement” taboo was a rebuke to the “Chosen One” motif in fantasy, but that actually makes a lot of sense! In fact, though, I was thinking more in terms of basic worldbuilding — like, whenever you have a group of magicians who have incredible powers, I always wonder why they don’t take over the world. Or at least wield major power. So when I was trying to come up with a magical world that made sense, and had some real weight and history to it, I needed to come up with something that keeps these magicians from just crushing everyone. So the prohibition on Aggrandizement was a good way to put some checks and balances into place. Plus, it kind of plays into Patricia’s whole thematic and character arc in a lot of different ways.

GeekLove5) What were some of the books that influenced you?

There were so many — lately, I’ve been talking a lot about Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, which was a strange, beautiful, unnerving book that redefined my sense of what is possible in books. So I was incredibly upset to find out that Dunn just died, and we never got to see her next novel. Just for that one book, she will always be one of my writing heroes.

6) I really liked Theodolphus Rose! Any chance we’ll be seeing more of him and his School any time soon?

Oh yay, thanks! I don’t have any plans to revisit Theodolphus. I did post some “deleted scenes” featuring him on my Tumblr, which give a little bit more context to his troubled career as a school guidance counselor. I am working on one short story that ties in with this novel, but Theodolphus isn’t in it, unfortunately.

 7) Is there any particular kind of fantasy/world that you want to see more of in the mainstream?

I have been saying for years that portal fantasies (like Narnia) are due for a comeback. And I’ve definitely seen some cool examples of the portal fantasy come out in book form lately. I just feel like there’s so much goodness to be gotten from the story of someone from NarniaWardrobe“our” world who journeys to a fantasy world and gets swept up in the strangeness and glamor of it all. I love that juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, and the meeting of cultures, etc. etc.

8) You’ve written short stories, novellas, and now a novel—plus your work will soon be a TV series. Has it been hard to shift between different forms?

I really love switching back and forth between short fiction and novels. I think you actually get a lot of benefit from doing both, because it keeps you in good shape. It’s like doing different sorts of exercise. Short fiction gives you a lot more practice writing beginnings and endings, and also making a logical world full of believable people in a hurry. But then novels involve writing a whole lot more middle, and force you to develop your world a lot more. I love doing both. I am terrified of actually writing for television though, because then I would have to discover just how ridiculous my dialogue is when spoken by actors.

9) How much do you think about other media while writing? For instance, did you ever consciously structure your work, keeping in mind TV episode formats?

I don’t really think about how anybody might try to adapt my work for the screen — that would just drive me nuts. What I do think about, though, is some other random television/movie stuff. Like sometimes when I am working on a story, I try to think about what “sets” I need to build, and which three or four sets most of the action is going to take place in. And then I obsess about what makes those three or four locations memorable and buffyinteresting — like how on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they have the high school library, the Bronze, and a couple other locations where a lot of the action takes place. Thinking about it this way helps me keep from just creating a ton of bland locations, because in fiction there are no budgetary constraints on how many “sets” you can build. Also, I’ve watched TV in the past and thought about the way that a lot of TV episodes structure their scenes, and how they pack a lot of drama and information into a few minutes. That’s interesting to pay attention to.

10) And finally, a question that has a lot of relevance to me—was it difficult to shift from being a critic/editor of books to writing one yourself? Do you ever find the two roles influencing each other?

I was doing a lot of criticism and entertainment writing even before I started working at io9, but definitely the io9 gig made me worry that I was going to be so stuck in the mode of snarking about other people’s creations, I wouldn’t be able to turn that off when it came to creating my own stuff. But in fact, I found that working on io9 just gave me so much more excitement for writing and creating — maybe because getting to geek out about what worked and what didn’t work in other stories made me have to think about storytelling in a new way, and that really had a huge impact on my creative process. I ended up feeling like I got paid to go to grad school and learn about science fiction. I still love to drill down into stories and figure out how they succeed and fail, and I think that’s a super useful exercise for writers to engage in.

Thank you, Charlie Jane, and I look forward to your next book! Everyone else, do pick up All the Birds in the Sky. I promise you it’s more than worth it. 

Quick words with Ken Liu

As my review would tell you, I was bowled over by Ken Liu’s debut novel, ‘The Grace of Kings’. After tying up Book 2 (which, he assures me, is full of ‘cool stuff’), Ken was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing, what he thinks of diversity in SFF and fantasy in general.

1) A clichéd question first! How did you fall in love with fantasy?

Ha, my answer might be a little different from many other American readers and writers.

I first fell in love with the wuxia fantasies of Jin Yong. I love the way he reworks history and adds what we think of as “modern” elements (intricate technology, interest-group politics, patriotism) into historical settings. As well, he uses fantastic touches like impossible superpowers, legendary creatures, and arcane knowledge to literalize what otherwise might only be metaphors.

The influence of Jin Yong can be felt and seen in The Grace of Kings as well as many other fantasy stories I’ve written.

2) Was the diversity of Dara (which I celebrated in the review) a conscious decision, or was it just something that came about naturally?

Both. I love celebrating the fact that we live in a diverse world. I think it’s natural to write fiction that makes everyone feel included.

At the same time, since one of the goals of The Grace of Kings was to change the way Western readers view “Chinese-ness” in fantasy, it was important to me to make the cast diverse to prevent the reader from falling into the trap of thinking “Oh, these are all Chinese people.”

3) I’ve often assumed that my favourite characters from fantasy books, when not described otherwise, looked like me, ie, non-Western and dark-skinned, and been surprised and a little disconcerted when fan art depictions turned out to be overwhelmingly white. Has this ‘whitewashing’ of fantasy ever bothered you?

One of the ways in which a visual medium like film differs from a written medium like fiction is how constrained the audience is in terms of imagining the characters. Because a work of fiction can’t slam you in the face with the physical features of the character on every page, fan art can be very revelatory of the larger cultural patterns we inhabit. If a character is known for being beautiful or handsome, how are they portrayed in fan art? If a character is known for being brutal or ugly, how are they portrayed in fan art?

I ask myself these questions often and try to catch myself from falling into the traps of the Western gaze.

4) As a Hugo award winner yourself, what’s your take on the controversy that raged this year?

I don’t have a single take. The controversy involves many conversations between many people, and not all of them agree on the premises upon which they argue, the interpretations of events, or even the meanings of words. Indeed, there may not be a single controversy, but many overlapping controversies with very different issues at stake that need to be parsed separately.

As a writer, my interest is primarily in writing works I like and connecting with readers who enjoy my work; as a reader, my interest is primarily in discovering works that delight and astound me. In neither role are the awards terribly important, though they are a great honor, of course.

5) In your bio, you’ve noted that you and your wife came up with the universe of ‘A Grace of Kings’ together. How much of her is in the final product?

Lisa suggested the idea of re-imagining the Chu-Han Contention as an epic fantasy to me,
grace of kingsand we worked together in coming up with some of the background for Dara. She’s a busy artist with her own career, however, and we decided early on that the book would basically be my project.

6) Did you have any favourite characters in your own book?

I like Luan Zya, the scholar-engineer, the most. The ideal of retiring at the height of your success is important to Chinese culture, and I’ve always aspired to that.

7) Given the increased calls for diversity in SFF, have you ever seen yourself as consciously representing a minority in the fantasy canon? Has such identification—by yourself or others—troubled you?

I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a “minority” in my work. I’m interested in telling stories that are meaningful to me and in challenging narratives that I dislike, but I don’t write with the idea that I’m there to “represent” anyone.

It’s possible—no, probable—that such identification has been imposed on me by others. I don’t have much control over that.

8) How does your day-job as a programmer influence your writing?

I work as a litigation consultant, so my day job involves a combination of law and software programming. I don’t know if writing for machines has particularly influenced my fiction much other than the fact that I enjoy writing about technology and tech culture. I suppose if one were to squint a bit, it’s possible to also say that programmers learn a love of elegance which can be very helpful in fiction writing.

9) In ‘Paper Menagerie’, the short story (which can be read here) you explore the theme of straddling two worlds, and how adherence to one often leads to the obliteration of the other. Does fantasy, in some ways, allow for an escape or a renegotiation of this seemingly impassable divide?

“The Paper Menagerie” can be read as an argument that the notion of “choosing” one world to the exclusion of others is destructive. Straddling multiple worlds and multiple identity categories is the default for most of the world’s population, and we need not escape to fantasy to embrace the fact that an individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity.

10) Finally, what’s next for Ken Liu the author? 

My first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is coming from Saga Press on November 30, 2015. I’m currently working on the sequel to The Grace of Kings, and I’m having a ton of fun with it. There are a couple more short fiction projects and translation projects that I’m excited about, and you can keep up with what’s happening with me on my web site (http://kenliu.name) and with my mailing list (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/).

Thank you so much for having me, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book!