(Originally aired 2018/03/10 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: Today, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is delighted to host Elizabeth Bear. Elizabeth is a prolific writer of both fantasy and science fiction and particularly known for historically inspired fantasies such as the Silk Road Eternal Sky series, the New Amsterdam series which is alternate history with sorcery, too many more to discuss in detail, but also the two books that particularly inspired me to invite her on the show: Karen Memory and its sequel that has just been released Stone Mad, which take place in the steampunk Pacific Northwest late 19th century.
Back in 2005, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Fantasy and Science Fiction Author, and she's won a couple of Hugo Awards for Short Fiction plus other honors that would take a while to list through. Welcome, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Bear: Hi, I'm glad to be here.
H: So, why don't you start by telling us a little bit about Karen Memory and Stone Mad and how you came to write them?
E: [Laughter] Well, it's actually one of those funny and convoluted stories because it turns out that adult but YA-friendly American steampunk novel with a 16-year-old lesbian protagonist was apparently hard to get through to the marketing people. [Laughter] Initially, I was solicited to write a – well, not write but submit a proposal for a Young Adult novel with a lesbian protagonist. I thought about it for a while, and I was talking with a friend of mine about it. Her name happens to be Karen, and, you know, she sort of tossed me the softball that made Karen's voice and the first line of the novel pop into my head.
H: Which is a very iconic line.
E: It's, “You ain't gonna like what I've got to tell you, but I'm gonna tell you anyway,” so that's why Karen is named Karen. She's named after my friend. I wrote the first 15,000 words of the novel, and I wrote a proposal up and sent it in, and it was soundly rejected, rejected left and right. [Laughter]
H: Do you suppose maybe a 16-year-old lesbian prostitute was maybe hard to swallow for the YA market?
E: You know when I initially pitched it, when I had the discussion with the editor who solicited it, they thought it was a great idea. I think sometimes – I think people were a little doubtful about Karen's voice among other things and because that she's a first-person narrator, and her voice is so intrinsic to my ability to write her. I don't write Karen's stories and then like run them through the Encheferizer [Laughter] to get her voice. They come out her voice, or they don't come out at all. Often, what I have to do is go back and edit out pages and pages and pages of digressions, usually about food. [Laughter] She likes her groceries.
So, this was back in 2009, and I took – I think it was the first 7,000 words or so of what I had written and turned it into a short story for a steampunk western anthology, a Weird West Anthology that John Joseph Adams put together. I wrote the Eternal Sky novels for my Tor editor Beth Meacham. When I had handed the last one in, she was like, “What do you want to do next?” and I'm like, “I don't really know. What do you want to see from me?” and she said, “Well, there was that YA pitch. Is there any reason why it has to be a YA?” and I'm like, “No, I mean it's going to be a 16-year-old protagonist with a fairly straightforward voice,” so she convinced me to try writing it as an adult novel. It's still quite YA friendly, I think. It certainly, at least, a lot of young readers seem to enjoy it.
It all kind of just came out of me in a rush. I think possibly because it had been, at that point, sitting there in the back of my head stewing for five years. The story had been there growing without being disturbed, so when I actually sat down to write it, I wrote it, I think four or five months.
I just had a wonderful time writing it. I had a wonderful time with the – one of the things that I like about the Karen Memory world is that it's more on the scientific end of steampunk. Many steampunk novels have things like vampires or sorcerers or…
E: In fact, my other steampunk or gaslit fantasy series has magic and sorcery in it. The New Amsterdam books that you mentioned, and this one doesn't have any magic. It doesn't. It has super engineering, and it has cryptozoological creatures. So, this is a world where like jackalopes are real and, you know, like all the creatures that show up in in tall tales of the Wild West are real. There are chupacabras out there somewhere sucking on goats. [Laughter]
Setting those constraints for myself meant that I had to think up, at least, like comic book technological explanations for everything, which was a lot of fun. You know, I grew up on Jules Verne and H. G. Wells the same as everybody else did.
H: Yeah, the influences from Verne were really obvious in it.
E: Yeah. Well, one of the things I love about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is that if you actually read – which is actually kind of hard to get your hands on – if you read a complete version of the novel, it's got really strong anti-colonial aspects to it because Nemo is a British subject from the Indian subcontinent who is fighting against the British overlords. He has a motivation! [Laughter]
E: Which doesn't show up in a lot of the movies and the edited versions of the book somehow.
H: Funny thing.
E: Funny thing! Funny thing how that gets taken out. Anyway, so, yeah, I mean that aspect is obviously very strong in there. The second novel, Stone Mad, it's a very, very short novel. It is just over the legal limit at like 40,000 words. So, it's being published through Tor.com's novella program because they have the infrastructure to do it, basically, but it is technically a novel, kind of. [Laughter] I've decided that what I want to do with this series because I do have above three more stories I want to tell in it right now.
H: Oh, I'm sure.
E: I’m sure I will think of more is – I think it would be neat to do longer works that are sort of more complicated murder mystery type objects and shorter works that are almost a little, I don't want to say, you know, that they're almost sort of self-fanfic like –
H: Well, no, I know exactly what you mean.
E: Like, almost, just a fun little side story.
H: I have a bunch of those to write for my series where it really does feel like I'm writing fanfic of my own work.
E: Yeah, and you know but there's nothing wrong with that. Why do the fans get to write all the fun bits? [Laughter] I want to write my protagonist and her girlfriend going out to dinner and getting into trouble. That's maybe not a novel plot, but it's certainly a very fun side story plot.
E: I guess that's it, you know? I mean I'm delighted to be writing these. My intention with them is that each one is going to be a story that can be read all by itself, and I want them to be – my friend Sarah Monette who also writes as Katherine Addison, who wrote The Goblin Emperor is her most well-known work, makes a distinction between clair and noir as modes of storytelling. Noir is, you know, what we might term grimdark these days but just where the underlying presentment of how the world works is cynical and brutal and nothing will ever turn out right and you'll never be happy. That's not the world I want to write when I'm writing about Karen. I want to put her in – she's an optimistic person, and I want to put her in an optimistic world, not where bad things never happen and people never get hurt because, obviously, they do but –
H: But where there's a hope that things will come out well.
E: There's a hope that things will come out well and people can recover from trauma within reasonable limits. Obviously, if somebody drops a house on you…
E: [Laughter] So finding that balance of gee-whiz action adventure, and a little bit of romance and a little bit of fun, and also making it a serious story about a serious character who experiences character growth, but it doesn't have to be that kind of, “And then I had a huge epiphany and realized why I had been goofing up my life,” [Laughter] because she hasn't, really.
E: She's had a rough life, but she's a very capable person. That's fun to write.
H: So the setting in the sort of – it's a Pacific Northwest clearly but not a specific place although I got kind of a mixed Portland-Seattle vibe out of it.
E: I was going for sort of mixed San Francisco-Seattle. I've never actually been to Portland. I’m sorry. I keep trying to go, and it doesn't work out. [Cross-talk] Portland, I'm coming!
H: Am I remembering correctly that you were living in Seattle at one point?
E: No, I visited it several times in quick succession and I've taught Clarion West a couple of times.
H: Okay, that must be what I'm remembering.
E: Yes, Cherie Priest was living in Seattle. I went out and bothered her once but – [Laughter]
H: So what was the attraction of that particular setting?
E: I mean it's physically beautiful for one thing. The history of the Northwestern U.S. is fascinating, and complicated, and gets extensively sort of – I mean like most of the history of the American West it does have a real tendency to get whitewashed and normed and, really, that part of the world during that time was where all the dregs washed up.
As I proudly identify myself as a dreg [Laughter] by middle American standards anyway or by, I should say by 19th century middle American standards, it allowed me to talk about a lot of people that history generally overlooks, and ignores, and erases. Seattle literally was—actually Seattle and San Francisco both in a lot of ways—literally were built on the backs of prostitution, that the working girls, the parlor girls, were taxed $50.00 a week. That's a lot of money in 1860 [Laughter] which tells you how well they were doing, at least, the ones on the upper end of the trade. That was the tax base so—and one of the things I love about Seattle is that they just admit this.
There was a woman of whom there is a fictionalized—I did not use the real Mother Damnable in Karen Memory; however, there is a character called Madame Damnable who is heavily inspired by the real Mother Damnable who was one of Seattle's founding mothers as it were and was, in fact, at one point running a whorehouse out of the upstairs of her two-floor house and town hall out of the first floor, [Laughter] literally.
Having been given that sort of coincidence of history and of frequently—I'm trying to think of the word I want here – of frequently marginalized people who nevertheless had a huge impact on society, that was what I wanted to talk about.
H: Yeah, and that actually leads into one of the questions I had prepared which you've already answered part of, but what I had come up with is that one of the things I loved in Karen Memory was how you wove in people and situations that are solidly part of history but weaving them in in ways that people might mistake for fictional elements. I'm thinking of things like the character of Bass Reeves, and the significant ethnic diversity without glossing over any of the racism, the diversity of gender and sexuality in a context where readers might find that surprising, and the utterly bonkers politics. So were those things that were part of the inspiration for the story in the first place, or were there things that you turned up while researching?
E: Well, Bass Reeves is the only real historical character in the book who is there as himself and not as a “This person inspired me to create a fictional character who is in some way their ‘structural descendant’ I guess,” but Bass Reeves was a real dude. He was a U.S. marshal who was an escaped slave who worked in the Indian territory, which is now Oklahoma. I have him somewhat off his patch for the purposes of this story.
He was obviously a black man, and he is, I believe, he still holds the record for the most warrants served and fugitives returned, and that's more than 100 years later. This guy was a badass not to put too fine a point on it. He also had like 23 kids—yeah, I know, when did he find the time, right?
He is probably the inspiration for the lone ranger. I had wanted to make more people aware of this guy's existence, and so I had the opportunity in this story since I have a serial killer running around Seattle, why not bring the lone ranger in to solve the mystery?
E: Make it the real lone ranger. Then, of course, he had to have Comanche possemen, and I wanted to try to do a more honorable version, more honorable job of presenting a real human being and not…
H: Just a sidekick?
E: A stereotypical Indian sidekick, yes, exactly. So, I wound up doing a lot of research on that and on the state of Indian affairs in the 1870s in the U.S. which is just depressing and horrible and not a story in which—it's a genocide. I mean there's no way to put any finer point on it than that. It's the story of a genocide, so there becomes a real challenge in talking about that stuff and being honest about it but also being honest about the fact that people in terrible conditions still have to live their lives. People in terrible conditions are not defined by their victimhood or don't have to be. You don't have to perform—society has a certain number of set roles for people who have been traumatized, and you are expected to perform one of those roles.
As somebody who has PTSD, I find that very irritating because I would like to see more representation of a wider range of characters like me. This makes me assume that other people who are not widely represented in fiction would like to see more representation of a wider range of characters who are like them, who are not the same two stereotypes.
H: Uh-huh, a lot of your fiction is rooted in history but takes off in new directions so not only in terms of adding fantastic elements sometimes but tweaking the direction of history to different pathways. What's the particular appeal to you of that type of story generally? Are historic settings something you've always loved or did just sort of arise out of the writing?
E: Well, I'm a terrible historian. I tried to write one actual historical novel which is The Stratford Man which was published in two volumes as Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth. I know it’s exhausting. It was so much work. I did the whole Tim Powers thing. I had timelines, and I had calendars with historical events written on them and fictional events written on them. I had to move something by one day for reasons of pacing, and I felt terrible about it. I’m like, “I'm just never doing this to myself again.” [Laughter]
H: So that definitely explains the diverging from history part of it.
E: Yeah, I'm done with being faithful to history. It's too much work. I'm going to leave that to people who like that sort of thing. I mean I love reading it. I love reading a good secret history but, wow, so much… And the thing is that no matter—nobody agrees about anything. I spent five days trying to research whether Shakespearean actors used stage paint and I finally—I could not find any research on this. I finally decided based on stage directions that they must. There's a line in Shakespeare, “Enter Rumor, painted in tongues,” if that's all he needs to say about it, “painted in tongues,” then obviously stage makeup is a thing that everybody's familiar with, and this is not a radical new idea.
Anyway, but I digress, I also feel like there are some of my books that are really very ahistorical that may be inspired by a time period, or a historical pattern, or a cultural pattern. I was trained as an anthropologist and often what I get my inspiration from is cultural patterns and cultural development rather than actual history. People will try to force it into a historical mold. My Eternal Sky books are about as ahistorical as any Western fantasy. They have no more basis in historical reality of the Mongolian steppes and the Middle and Far East than Game of Thrones does in 13th century Ireland and England.
H: But I guess that answers my question is that you are attracted to cultures and playing with cultures as opposed to being attracted to historical events and playing with those.
E: Well, trying very hard not to appropriate other people's cultures but sort of look at the logical structures of how a culture develops and why it happens that way and come up with a thing that follows a similar logical structure, does that make sense?
H: Yeah, yeah.
E: I think that there are a lot of fantasists who do the same thing, but then they'll say, “Oh, I'm writing Celtic fantasy,” and I'm like your Celtic fantasy has absolutely nothing to do with real Celtic society.
H: Yeah. [Laughter] Well, and a lot of the people—
E: [Cross-talk] just cop to the fact that, “No, I made this up.”
H: Yeah, a lot of medieval fantasy is the same. It's like, “Oh, this is a medieval fantasy,” but nothing like anything I've ever studied.
E: Yeah or Norse fantasy which is—I've written a fair amount of Norse-inspired fantasy and Norse-inspired techno-fantasy because I am a child of the 80s. This is not a saga. I am not telling you a true story about something that happened to people a thousand years ago. I am making a lot of stuff up, and, yes, it does have trolls in it. I did borrow your trolls.
H: So I'm interested also, specifically, in how writers develop the presentation of marginalized sexualities in their historic settings. I mean the name of the podcast kind of leads to that point. Is this something where you base the characters on known historical situations, or individuals, or on general research, or just what felt fit right to you?
E: Often, I do… I mean I grew up in a queer family, and I'm queer myself. Because of that, I have never lived in a world that didn't have queer people in it, and so when I was—I actually just wrote a Patreon post about this. When I was a young person reading science fiction, discovering books that actually had queer people in them unremarkably, Diane Duane in particular The Door Into… series, I think that was the first book I ever encountered as a young reader in which I opened it and here's a young prince riding off to rescue his beloved, another young prince, who is trapped in a tower. It's just treated totally naturally and I'm like, “This is amazing. This is like people I know.”
I still remember that visceral sense of not feeling ostracized from the fiction I loved, and I want to give other people that sense of, “Here is a place where you are welcome,” obviously, but I also feel like we do have a real tendency to write historical characters as if they were living in the modern world and writing—I mean the concept of heterosexuality and homosexuality is only about 150 years old, if that.
When I'm writing characters in Elizabethan England who are same gender attracted or attracted to a panoply of genders or whatever it is that's their particular thing, they're not thinking about it in terms of, “Well, I'm gay,” or “I'm straight,” or “I'm bisexual.” They're thinking about it in terms of “This is a homosexual act,” not, “I am a homosexual person,” so the construction of identity is very different. That was a thorny thing to wrestle with while trying to acknowledge that while not saying anything that could be interpreted as, “Well, homosexuality is not a valid identity,” because, of course, it is. Because sexuality is a social construct and so is identity, that doesn't make them not real. Money is a social construct.
E: Corporations are a social construct.
H: But there's a tricky aspect there where heterosexuality was not a valid historic concept either and yet—
H: —nobody ever questions or challenges that if you're writing heterosexual characters so…
E: Bingo, exactly. Obviously, I believe that there is a spectrum of desire and people are attracted to whom they are attracted to for various reasons including gender but that the—so the construct of that is a real thing versus the identity of, “Well, I'm a heterosexual.”
H: Yeah, and what to expect to do with that desire is, of course, very socially constructed.
E: Exactly, absolutely. Yeah, that's a real challenge. It's also a real challenge to write characters in the same time frame or same setting who come from different cultures and have different ideas of what gender and sexuality are. Of course, many of these are so different from our own constructions and yet I want to feel welcoming to modern readers who read my books.
H: Yes, exactly.
E: It's so challenging.
H: It's a really tricky balance point.
E: Yeah, exactly. Man, people are complicated. [Laughter]
H: So, as we've said, your new book Stone Mad will be out by the time this podcast airs, and people should go pick it up and read it. If they haven't read Karen Memory before, they should read that, too, although you say they both stand alone. What other current projects or upcoming projects do you have that our listeners might be interested in?
E: Today I am finishing the final structural and narrative edit on a book called Ancestral Night that I am super, super, super excited about. It will be out next year, 2019, from Gallant in the U.K. and Saga in the U.S. It is a big idea sprawling old school exploration of space opera whose protagonist is a lesbian salvage tug engineer with terrible taste in women. [Laughter]
H: That sounds like our listeners will probably like that one.
E: Terrible, I like that so bad. [Laughter] So, that's relevant to this podcast.
E: After that, I need to start serious drafting work on a book called The Red-Stained Wings which is the next book in the second Eternal Sky trilogy. The first book is The Stone in the Skull which was out last October and just made the Locus Recommended Reading List.
E: That one's pretty thoroughly queer, too, I have to say. I was playing around with the ideas of what sort of societies might have developed in an analog to the Indus River Valley which is one of the places where agriculture first arose, agriculture and aqueducts, and counting, and written language, possibly, and a bunch of other stuff first arose. We know almost nothing about the people who lived there because time.
Because I have this big tapestry in the Eternal Sky world, I wanted to move there and tell a set of stories about those people, and they're having a basically a little internecine cousin versus cousin, the empire has collapsed, war over resources because some of them have fertile farmland and some don't. Then catastrophic geologic events start happening which is, of course, always makes your border skirmishes better.
H: Yeah, shakes up your characters very nicely.
E: Yeah, yeah.
H: Makes things happen.
E: So that's my next big project that I actually have to write as opposed to editing.
H: Uh-huh, so if one of our listeners wanted to follow you on social media and keep up with what you're doing what would you suggest? I know you have a Patreon where you sometimes post stories.
E: I do. I am @matociquala everywhere, m-a-t-o-c-i-q-u-a-l-a. I actually don't currently have a dedicated website because it needed to be revamped completely, and I took it down, and then life happened so elizabethbear.com will currently just take you to my Patreon. That's the easiest way to get there. I’m @matociquala on Twitter, and I'm @matociquala on Instagram. I have a very neglected Facebook page, Facebook fan page, so if you want really, really intermittent updates, there's that. I also have a tiny newsletter on an erratic basis which is also @matociquala.
H: Once upon a time, you had a LiveJournal, but I don't know if that got dropped somewhere in the great LiveJournal migration.
E: It is all still mirrored on Dreamwidth, and there's a lot of, “How I learned how to write,” back there which might be a useful resource, but I have not—I started that blog because—actually it was Neil Gaiman's fault although he doesn't know this. He wrote a post on his blog about why his blog wasn't about writing, and it was a very funny post. Then I realized that I wanted to read that blog. I wanted to read as somebody who was at that point trying to, had just sold my first professional short story, and was trying to write a novel that would sell. I wanted that blog, so I decided to write it. I wrote it. I kept it going for 10 years, 2003 through 2013 plus intermittent updates afterwards. I think the last one was probably about a year ago, but then I realized that I'm still learning stuff about writing. I don't think you ever stop, but all of the stuff I'm learning about writing now is no longer generally applicable. It's how I fix this one particular sentence, and I have no idea how to blog about that or if it would be useful to anybody. Also, I sort of ran out of time.
H: Yeah, yeah, I know that well.
E: That's the other thing.
H: So I'll include links to all of these places to find you in the show notes, and thank you so much for sharing your time with the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
E: Good, thank you for giving me this opportunity. This has been so much fun.
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Elizabeth Bear Online