First off, welcome to the South African SFF-reading public, Karen, and thank you for doing this interview!
Nice to talk to you all in SA!
Would you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Not much to tell, really. I’ve been writing fiction for a living since 2004. Before that, I was a journalist, and I worked in PR, but as that was political PR, you can probably count that as fiction too. I sometimes wonder if my characterisation skills actually developed as a result of having to make politicians look like reasonable, honest human beings. A few of them really taxed my creativity on that front….
You’ve completed your Wess’har War series (among many other projects): will you please give us an intro to the series?
It’s about what happens when humans blunder into a rumbling on-off war between aliens a long way from Earth. Not only do we find we’re not the top of the food chain, we also find that our morality is not the morality of the militarily dominant species, and that they find us pretty disgusting. Inevitably, we screw up badly, and they decide we’re a threat that has to be dealt with. There are no heroes or villains in the series, just different perspectives, the very tight third person point of view of each character, so it’s not a series for readers who like nice clear-cut good and evil. Nor are there any answers in it, because I don’t have any. It’s all questions. The characters that most readers regard as the heroes of the series are a disgraced cop, a war criminal, an alien warlord, and a combat-stressed veteran commando. That tells you a lot.
What were the themes that you wanted to explore with the Wess’har War series?
All my novels, tie-in or creator-owned, are about the politics of identity. I didn’t have a label for it until a reader who’s an academic pointed that out to me. They’re all about how we identify ourselves and the line between “us” and “them”, the “them” being anything we can treat badly or exploit. It’s all about otherness. You’ll see exactly the same questions explored in my Star Wars or Gears of War books, or anything else I write – it’s something that works in tandem with my tight-third-person POV style. You’re in each character’s head as the books progress, and you only see the world as each sees it, no authorial intrusion, so it’s up to you as the reader to decide who you believe. I create characters (and develop the ones I inherit) using a twin technique that’s a mix of biology and psychological profiling – I ask myself what kind of person would find themselves in certain niches – who would want to take a one-way trip to an alien world? – then work out the psych profile, and let them loose to interact with one another. It’s much more like computer modelling or games than conventional novel techniques, and the characters really do drive the plot to places I not only don’t recognise but also to places where I wouldn’t want to go personally. I don’t bolt a plot of my choice into the characters. That makes for a very different kind of book.
I’m an ethicist, a critic tells me, which means I explore all my stories in terms of ethics. I still think like a journalist, of course, so if anyone tells me “These are the good guys,” my instant reaction is, “Yeah? Says who? Why?” I don’t take anyone’s word for anything, and I don’t take well to unchallenged assumptions. For example, Star Wars – the vast majority of Star Wars fiction is centred on Jedi, so we just get the Jedi PR view, and nobody sees themselves as bad – not even serial killers. We all think we’re right, and we all think we’re good people. But if you look at yourself, or the Jedi, through someone else’s eyes – someone who hasn’t fared well at your hands, or theirs – then you’ll get a very different picture. So I introduced the idea to SW that the Jedi might not have been the heroes they thought they were. As a journalist, looking at them cold (I knew nothing about SW before I started the books, and I’m not a fan) the Jedi struck me as exactly the kind of cult I’d want to investigate and whose funding and resources would be of great interest, if you get my drift.
What have you found to be the best way of relaxing during or between projects? Have you ever wanted to just pull your hair out and demand more hours in the day from the universe?
When I find a “between projects” moment, I’ll let you know. I haven’t had a break since October 2004. I have to have one soon, or I’ll drop. I’ll probably do something like take up gliding or some other thing I’ve never thought about before, just to see what happens.
Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently or changed, if you could?
Well, there are only four years to look back on, but if you go by the number of books I’ve written in that time, yes, I suppose that’s a lifetime’s writing for most people, so, okay, career. There have been a few books I’ve absolutely loathed writing for various reasons, and at a basic human level I wish I’d never signed on the dotted line. Readers won’t even be able to guess which ones they are, because it never shows in the books; every book is written to utmost of my ability. It’s not actually the books per se that are negative experiences, but the accompanying factors that are actually a bigger part of writing a novel than the writing itself.
At a professional level, though, I know that the bad things in life teach you a lot more than the good ones, so they’re necessary. I now understand exactly what I dislike and should avoid doing, so I make better choices about what I do in the future. The negative experiences have also been useful for testing my own judgment – there was one case where my inner voice said, “You know this is going to be a serious pain in the backside, don’t you?”, but I did it anyway, and it was, so I learned to trust my instincts better.
I run on business plans – this is business, not art – so I’m used to evaluating outcomes and adjusting plans accordingly, and there’s no point writing if you don’t enjoy it. There are much easier ways to earn a living. The more I define what gives me pleasure in my working day, the better the quality of my life. For example, I know now that I really enjoy working with a games team – I’ve had the time of my life working on GEARS OF WAR with Epic. I also know now that I’m not actually an SF writer – I’m a military writer who happened to start with SF, and the military/ political thing is likely to be the constant in my career, not the genre. You only get to know that by trying things and finding out what you don’t like.
You’ve been on many book tours and have had to sign many books: is there any tour that stands out in particular, one that you really enjoyed?
Actually, I’ve only done a few, and only in the USA. I love the actual events – meeting readers, giving talks – but I hate the travel in between. The sooner someone invents a matter transporter, the better. I’m still twitching from the Great Chicago Airport Foul-up of 2007, also known as the Voyage of the Damned. I won’t bore everyone with the logistics disaster story, but we (me and artist Matt Busch) finally got to Indianapolis an hour after the event was due to start, and by that time the airline had lost my luggage – and | was due in Florida the next day. The situation was saved by the magnificent folks of the local 501st Legion garrison, who made sure I was fed, took me shopping for emergency supplies and clothing, and generally looked after me. I have the best fans on the planet – bless them.
Finally, how do you think the science-fiction genre has changed over the decades, and do you think it has changed for better or worse?
I don’t read novels – I don’t read any print fiction other than comics – so I can’t judge by that, or comment on quality, because that’s going to be highly subjective anyway. But I can judge by sales and what I see happening in the SF community. (At least what I see peering through the window, because I’m not part of it, not in the UK or in the US.) I’m disappointed to see what non-media SF has become. It’s dying sales-wise, agents tell me, and I think it’s only got itself to blame; it created its own ghetto and seems to delight in making it hard for casual readers to get in.
You shouldn’t have to have a body of special genre knowledge before you pick up a book in order to get something out of it – that’s like setting an entrance exam. But that barrier seems to be there, and so a lot of SF has lost out to SF/ fantasy tie-ins and other media because it’s failed the general reader in terms of creating immersive stories. It’s the kind of attitude I see aimed at TV series like Battlestar Galactica. “It’s not SF!” the hard-liners shriek. Well, I say it is SF and the kind we should be aiming at if we want more people to get into it, because BSG is accessible to casual viewers as well as self-identifying SF fans. BSG is about people and situations we can relate to, and SF is just a stage setting for those things. And “accessible” is not a dirty word – what kind of genre doesn’t want to appeal to as many people as possible? We’re not running an exclusive country club here. We’re seeking a shared experience. I write for general readers, deliberately so, not only because that’s the only way novels will survive in the market, but because I actually want to reach as many people as I can. Believe me, I’d rather write a million-selling book for a modest advance than accept a million bucks for a book that sold to only a couple of thousand readers.
Books have to be primarily about people – about characters. The time has long gone when you could trot out a story about a gizmo and the idea of the gizmo alone would make readers gasp. We live in a world stuffed with damn gizmos, our pockets and homes are full of them, and we know what they do and that they haven’t always made our lives magically better. But we still have trouble understanding other people. So that’s where the sense of wonder lies, the unknown country to explore.
The worst lie SF ever told itself was that any story where you could take out the science and the story still worked was just “skiffy”, and hence inferior. By all means go on writing “ideas and gizmo” SF, but don’t be surprised if most people don’t buy it. Novels are about the human condition – even if they’re about aliens. Characters – people – are what sell books to most readers..
Thank you, Karen, for giving up some of your time to answer these questions for us, and please keep those incredible novels coming!