Karin Lowachee is a Canadian novelist whose novels include the Warchild trilogy and The Gaslight Dogs. In the September 5 New York Times Sunday Book Review, Jeff VanderMeer called The Gaslight Dogs a “rich, morally ambiguous novel.” The book is marketed as speculative fiction, but if you don’t ordinarily read science fiction and fantasy don’t let the publishing category deter you. All in all, this is a character-driven novel about people in conflict with themselves and others, a book that will challenge you in the best of ways.
The story is told from the points of view of Sjennonirk, a spiritwalker of the Aniw tribe, and Jarrett Fawle, a captain in the Ciracusan army. By telling two very personal stories, Lowachee also tells the story of the two cultures clashing. She is painfully good at capturing the claustrophobia of personal turmoil and the chaos of societal unrest.
What, ultimately, do you write about?
Karin Lowachee: People. And how their worlds/environments/other people affect them. I’m not a “brand new idea” kind of writer and I realized that long ago. You won’t see me saying anything interesting about string theory (not that I’m not fascinated by science, it’s just not what would propel me for 400 pages in a novel). But breaking down a psychology and a society — that’s what I’m most interested in when I sit down to begin a book.
What do you enjoy about writing? What don’t you enjoy?
Karin Lowachee: I enjoy the exploration and the ability to integrate every one of my interests in some way, over time, without restriction. If you’re interested in the universe and everything in it, writing is the perfect job. If you’re a bit of a control freak it’s also a fantastic endeavor because it isn’t collaborative (usually) until the editorial stage, and even then it’s not collaborative like, say, making a movie is collaborative. Ultimately you’re still the sole visionary of your work and when you have a specific vision, working to make it unfold is very gratifying. What I don’t enjoy, to be very frank, is how much your ability to continue to publish relies on sales. But you accept that it’s a business too.
What is the value of speculative fiction? At its best, what role does it play in the world?
Karin Lowachee: It’s the literature of ideas. It’s a metaphoric literature, one that has the potential to speak truth on more than one level. It’s a literature that has the most leeway to experiment in every way, ideally. The oldest stories of humanity read like speculative fiction. There’s something abiding in it and at its best I think it can appeal to everyone if everyone had open minds. You have to have an open mind to want to read a literature of ideas. You have to want to be challenged, and speculative fiction writers should challenge their readers whether they like it or not. I don’t approach my writing as an opportunity to appeal to the lowest common denominator; I aim for the highest because that pushes me, and hopefully it will push my readers a little too. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a place for “light reading,” but literature shouldn’t all be light reading or we’re in trouble as an art form.
If you could see around corners and into the future, what do you think the literary landscape will look like in ten years?
Karin Lowachee: Man, I am way too self-involved to predict that. I like to keep my head down and pay more attention to my own work and development than other people’s. This has good and bad consequences, I’m sure, but ultimately it means I don’t let outside influences worry me too much. Ideally I’d like our genre to keep thriving, of course, and for people to break through new frontiers and for other people to encourage them. Sticks in the mud need not apply, you know? A literature of ideas can’t rest on the past. And by ideas I don’t mean ‘things never before considered.’ I just wrote a secondary world fantasy. There’s nothing essentially new in it. Saying “that story’s been told already” isn’t really a valid complaint, to my mind. Because every story has been told already and the only difference is the reader’s level of ignorance (or close-mindedness). But the synthesis of many known parts can create something new that people might not think about otherwise, or might not have seen in exactly that way. That’s the frontier.
Everyone has a unique vision if they want to explore it and show it. Changing the face of anything, in even a small way, is a part of what we do as writers, I hope. If even one person said to me, “I knew nothing about the Inuit but then read your book and got curious to know the real culture,” I would consider that a change; I would consider that to be something new I introduced to that one reader. I’ve had readers say to me that they didn’t realize the plight of child soldiers in our world until they read Warchild, or never paid attention to it on the news until they read my book. Warchild doesn’t say anything new, but it’s my specific vision and it changed the personal landscape for those particular readers. I’m more concerned about doing that than what’s in the broader literary landscape, of which I’m an ultimately insignificant part.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.