I love reading interviews with writers and other artists. I love to hear or read about how artists build, make, compose, sculpt, paint, draw… create art of any sort. I’ll read just about any interview with a creative person talking about what and how he or she makes art, but my favorite interviews are usually with authors. In fact, I love reading them so much that I started conducting them.
In between college and graduate school, I developed a habit of printing out or photocopying interviews, half a dozen or more at a time, and pouring over them in search of nuggets of wisdom. I sought out that special line or unique turn of phrase or secret to the riddle. I kept files of highlighted interviews. I quoted the good bits in the classes I was teaching or taking. I pondered sagely advice until I internalized it.
Over the holiday, I read back through all the interviews I did for Clarkesworld Magazine in 2010 and underlined some of my favorite passages. I’ve arranged them below and hope they’ll bring you as much of a thrill as they brought me. There are 13 writers and one visual artist represented, including Elizabeth Bear, Lois McMaster Bujold, Scott Eagle, Theodora Goss, N. K. Jemisin, Kij Johnson, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Mary Robinette Kowal, Matthew Kressel, Jay Lake, Karin Lowachee, Cherie Priest, Angela Slatter, and Marly Youmans. Don’t look for any theme or arc. These are just passages that jumped out at me as being particularly relevant to other writers. I’ve hyperlinked the authors’ names to the original interview in case you want to check out the rest of what they have to say.
On Getting Started
Cherie Priest: Sometimes it starts with just a word… But sometimes it’s more complicated. It’s a character, or a situation. Often it’s a fragment of real history so terribly strange and insufficient that it seems to demand a fuller telling. It varies greatly from project to project… You just never know.
N. K. Jemisin: All of the images had the same peculiar note of contradiction in common — ancient eyes in a young face, an entity of cosmic power and significance reduced to slavery, and so on. The only thing I could find to reconcile these images was some sort of mythology, since mythology routinely syncretizes contradictions. Everything else fell out from that.
Mary Robinette Kowal: Basically, the act of creating a character is the same in both forms [puppetry and writing]. What the character looks at shows you what they are thinking about. The order in which you look at things carries meaning. The pacing with which things take place speaks to the emotion of the moment.
Elizabeth Bear: Characterization, for me, is a matter of revealing how the elements of a person cohere–contradictions, harmonies, main themes and relationships. Everybody is trying to see themselves as a hero, and everybody is fragile as old glass if you hit them right. It’s all about the tensions between those things.
On Writing Quickly
Jay Lake: I still write fast. In fact, my challenge has been to slow down. I can’t write too slowly, any more than I can ride a bicycle too slowly. I wobble and lose control. But the benefit is that you wind up with words on the page. That is, after all, the core fungible commodity of the writer. Also, I have a short attention span. If it took me years to write a novel, I think I’d have to find another passion.
On Short Fiction
Angela Slatter: A short story should show a slice of life at a particular moment–a reader is sucked in and then thrown out again, with head spinning–a bit like a trip with a malfunctioning vortex manipulator… A short story needs to be all gold. A reader shouldn’t feel that any word is out of place or wasted. It should also (in my opinion) leave a reader feeling that there’s other stuff that’s gone on that they haven’t been told … that there’s another story, an “under-story” that still remains hidden. It’s about a subtle layering that leaves a sense of unease even after a satisfactory conclusion. Finally for me, a short story should be about the three C’s: crisis, choice, and consequence.
On Challenging Readers
Karin Lowachee: I don’t appeal to lazy readers in my novels and never have…. Not everything is explained upfront (because the universe doesn’t work that way and I’m of the mind that people should accept unknowns or at least be patient with them), but what I do explain is very conscious and exactly what I want you to know if you’re paying attention.
Kij Johnson: I hope I change the reader in some way — make her see something or experience something she would not otherwise, and may not want to. What I write may or may not be entertaining, but my goal going in is usually not entertainment — it’s exploring themes and people and styles I am curious about. I’m always happy when people like reading it and get what I’m doing. Most of my fiction does what I want it to because (except in a couple of cases) I don’t send it out before it does so.
On Being Critiqued
Matthew Kressel: I think you have to be open to the possibility that what you just wrote needs work. You have to allow for the fact that as others are reading your work, they’re looking for flaws, and everything has flaws. The reason why [Altered Fluid] critique sessions work more often than not is because we engage in constructive criticism. We’re not trying to destroy each other’s egos, but instead trying to find what’s broken in a story and fix it. Or finding what works in a story and make it work even better. And there are a lot of talented minds in that room to do that.
On Finding Balance
Marly Youmans: If you’re a mother, you can’t be fussy about writing time or writing conditions. I have three children and need to be present for them. Forgotten books, homework, appointments, music lessons, sports, long talks: many things lap up the day. I wrote The Wolf Pit during the night, sometimes going to bed at four in the morning and rising with my children at seven. It’s not a way to write that I recommend, but it worked. I am able to plunge into a novel or story without any trouble with readiness, and I can write in the midst of noise. Revision — tweaking poems, cutting and tightening fiction, and so on — is especially doable while children come in and out. Another useful thing is that my husband likes to cook. I highly endorse marriage to a man who cooks!
Lois McMaster Bujold: I’ve been wondering what the heck retirement means for a writer. At the end of a long career, I can at last… stay home and write books? Puzzling. I have been more-or-less retiring piecemeal, dropping chores or outgrowing life-phases. Right now I have two part-time jobs, one as a writer, the other as a writer’s secretary/bookkeeper/housekeeper/publicity manager. I think the next thing I would like to retire from is being an author — all those time-consuming PR chores that were an exciting challenge once, but are now more of an energy drain than an energy boost. I mean, they are all very well, but they aren’t writing. Or slacking, for that matter.
On Writing Fantasy
Theodora Goss: When I write fantasy, I think I write about reality. I think I write about the fact that we don’t really know what reality is, that we create the reality we think we see. And there might be a real reality behind that consensual reality, something more magical and meaningful than we can usually imagine. With fairies. Or something that we might label fairies.
On Abusing Paper
[Visual Artist] Scott Eagle: For that past several years, all of my work has started out on paper. I have several stacks of varying sizes that I take out from time to time and thoroughly abuse. I soak the paper in all sorts of nastiness, leave it on my studio floor, walk on it, drop things on it, just about everything that you are told not to do to a “work of art” I will do to that poor defenseless paper. What amazes me is that I have been abusing some of this paper for years and it has still not fallen apart.
At some point a particular piece of paper might begin to suggest an image, or it might achieve a patina that speaks to me so strongly that I pull it from the fray. From that moment on, it usually evolves slowly and carefully — if it is not aborted and thrown back into the mix. Some of my paintings have hundreds of hours of work invested by the time they are complete.
On Finding Your Voice
Caitlin R. Kiernan: I wanted to create a mad fusion of voices, a distillation, of all these authors, that I could then wield to my own ends. But what has happened, instead, is that I’ve found my own voice, admittedly greatly influenced by these writers and many, many more.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. 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.