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Interview: Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is running out of things to win. She’s won the Hugo Award for best novel many times over. She’s won the Nebula Award twice, the Mythopoeic Award for adult novel, and three Locus Awards. She’s won the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award (Skylark Award), which is awarded to writers not only for their contributions to science fiction as a genre, but also for their embodiment of the qualities of “Doc” Smith that were admired by his family and friends. (This was a man who was described by Robert Heinlein as a “Superman,” so emulating him is no small feat.)

Though the proof is less tangible, Bujold has also managed to win the admiration of many fans. Some of this admiration has to be for endurance. When her first book, Shards of Honor, a story of love and interplanetary politics, did not get published immediately, she went on to write a novel about Miles Vorkosigan, the son of the two lovers in Shards of Honor. When that did not get published quickly enough, she wrote yet another book, set in the same universe. Her dedication paid off when Baen Books agreed to publish all three books after a look at the second one.

She applied the same perseverance to her attempts at the fantasy genre. After the first fantasy book she wrote, The Spirit Ring, didn’t make the splash she wanted, she took classes, came up with a new idea, and returned to the genre with The Curse of Chalion. This book, set in a fantasy kingdom where gods and mortals mingle, was a financial and critical success. The second fantasy novel she wrote, set in this series, was Paladin of Souls, which won her fourth Hugo and second Nebula. When it came to fantasy, Bujold went from educational experience to top of the heap over the course of three books.

But despite her success as a fantasy writer, science fiction and the Miles Vorkosigan series form her greatest body of work. Miles is the son of the most preeminent and heroic couple on Barrayer, his home planet. Although his aristocratic lineage should make his life easy, he suffers biological setbacks due to an attack on his mother while she was pregnant. His stunted growth and fragile bones make him an object of ridicule on his planet, so he leaves to explore the galaxy and make a living as a fighter, detective, smuggler, and whatever else he can manage to do with his keen intelligence and unwavering determination. The Vorkosigan Saga includes books that are space operas, books that are murder mysteries, books that dabble in romance, and one book that is, according to its subtitle, “A Comedy of Biology and Manners.” Miles has become one of the most beloved characters in science fiction—and an appropriate place to start the interview.

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In an introduction, an interviewer once said he had never heard of anyone disliking the Miles Vorkosigan books, ever. Have you?

Sure. One has only to pop over to Amazon.com or the like and click on all the one and two-star reviews to find all sorts of opinions. Or cruise the Internet, or check out old reviews. Reader-response has always been all over the map.

Also, some people don’t [just] have issues, they have subscriptions, and it can be hard to recognize, on a single encounter, that this is the case. Gradually, I have learned to spot people who read through their own Special Filters, and at least partially sort out where their remarks are coming from. The general rule impressed upon newbie writers is: “Never respond to a negative review.” Writers aren’t made out of rubber, but it is a sound idea to pretend to be.

You’ve moved from being a new author to one of the most well-known writers in two different genres. Have people grown more diffident over the years? More demanding?

I have a new kind of readerly displeasure to deal with these days, though, which I think of as “being the victim of my own success,” in a way. These are the faithful readers who, in eager anticipation, build up an inner vision of the story they want my book to be, and are variously distressed when the book that finally arrives in their hands, the one that came out of my head, doesn’t match the one that came out of theirs. They write me helpful letters, detailing the plots of the books they think I should have written instead. (All different, of course.) As though I’d had some kind of mental lapse, and needed to be gently straightened out. Very well-meant and sincere, these.

Grant that I do have a brief desire to channel my mother, yelling back at her family in the kitchen at breakfast, “I’m not a short-order cook!” But I have so far managed to overcome the impulse.

In Miles Vorkosigan, you have created what may well be the richest, most-human character in speculative literature, one that grows with time. Do readers note his character progression? Is there any piece of his character that they enjoy most?

Miles is not a jigsaw puzzle. He is not pre-assembled; he grows through and by his actions, all of which combine to create him in turn, in a continuous feedback loop. Just like real people, that.

Miles changes all the time, over the course of his books; he can’t learn without growing and changing. And yes, readers notice.

And for the final Miles-related question: You’ve mentioned that you’ve felt that Miles dies at age fifty-seven. Is this something you still believe? And if so, are you any closer to the how and the where and the why of it?

I’ve also written: “The writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.” Nothing that is not published is canon, and even some of that can be worked around with clever use of tight viewpoints.

All lives, pushed out far enough, come to the same end; comedy and tragedy both depend for their effects on selecting the story’s stopping-point.

It’s an interesting problem, though, for writers of popular series. Should one throw one’s protagonist over the Reichenbach Falls, or let him fade gently into the sunset of the Sussex Downs, keeping bees? (Or both?) No matter which the writer chooses, someone will be unhappy about it. If one’s audience is large enough, it will collectively demand every possible closure, most mutually exclusive.

There comes a point when one really has to stop listening to one’s readers, however much one delights in them, and start listening to oneself.

While you eschew political agendas, you point out that every writer can’t help but write his or her worldview. To the extent that you write books to (among other things) discover that worldview, would you say there is one that’s remained consistent across all your books, and if so how would you describe it?

I suppose that underneath, my worldview is biological; that has certainly sustained itself across all the books and all the series. I believe most politics are driven by our biology, disguised; culture is the clothing we invent to hide our nakedness. Or, biology is to culture as hunger is to cuisine. It’s not necessarily better to study the mechanisms of blood glucose than it is to study cookbooks; one is an underlying universal and the other a flowering of detail, and a balanced life would want both.

But I want to grasp the underlying universals, which, if ever they are correctly understood, ought to be the master key to all cultures. Or: Ever since my human anatomy course back in college, anyone with their skin still on looks dressed to me.

In a WorldCon speech, you discussed reading Scott McCloud’s three books and having them change your view of the world. Are there any comics or webcomics you’ve read or read regularly?

At the moment, xkcd. That one regularly delights me, one way or another. No, I don’t get all of the math jokes.

Similarly, you’ve been asked about what anime you like. Is it something you still watch? If so, any recommendations? You usually mention that you watch a lot of nonfiction DVDs but not as many interviewers appear to have asked for recommendations on that front—do you have any?

I seem to have gone off anime, for the moment. These things always go in cycles for me.

Just saw a good non-fiction DVD last night, in fact, speaking about the intersection of biology and culture, Stress: Portrait of a Killer. Or, how are African baboon troops and British bureaucrats alike? In many more ways than one would think.

Back in 2008, ebook sales were “pizza money” for you. Has that changed by now?

In the past two years, with the rise of Kindle, Nook, and iPad, I believe it finally has. In one of my recent royalty reports, although my paper backlist books still sold twice as many copies as the ebooks, the ebook side generated about 20% more income (different royalty structures). A few years ago, units sold of paper-to-ebook would have been 10:1. So, yeah, big shift.

You’ve said that “to a large degree my worlds are created by the stories moving through them,” but I know you’ve also put a lot of thought into Chalionese theology. Do you feel more pressure to return to Chalion knowing there’s more you want to say?

I get letters every week asking for more of everything. (If I want to write anything new, I pretty much have to do it for myself.)

Chalion sits at the moment as an incomplete pattern, as the series wants to be five books, one for each of the five gods; but that’s not a story idea, that’s just a sense of imbalance. The driving characters and their stories have not yet presented themselves.

At what point does your brain send up enough material on the mental dumbwaiter that you figure you can make a meal with what you’ve got?

It varies from book to book. Sometimes a single line or thought has that plangent vibe (such as, “Miles and Ivan go to the Cetagandan State Funeral”—that alone was enough to make me start grinning—after that it was just q.s. ad lib); sometimes elements must be hitched together with other material to hit critical mass (as, Cazaril as an unnamed proto-character suddenly clumping together with 15th Century Spanish court history. In the shower. With the fortress of the Zange rising up radiant on its rock against scudding, cold, slate-blue clouds.)

What kind of preliminary work do you do when you think you have enough material to start a new novel?

In general, when a novel starts to cook, I’ll accumulate about fifty pages of hand-written notes before the opening scene of Chapter One comes glimmering up out of the fog. Although the novella “The Borders of Infinity” started with four pages of scribbled notes for something that refused to generate a novel, and were put away, only to pop up, suddenly remembered, when a project of the right length was offered.

I never know everything about a book when I start it—writing a novel would be a very boring proposition if that were so, without learning or surprises along the way. “Just enough to be going on with” will do.

In another Worldcon speech, you invited listeners to ask you later about your metaphor of genres as dog breeds. Dog breeds are generally meant to serve different functions for their human masters. What functions do you think the different genres serve?

Psychological needs, principally, different ones for different readers. Different sorts of mental and emotional satisfactions. Genres have been shaped, ultimately, by readers, with sales successes breeding imitation.

There is also the hazard, like dog breeds, that in the pressure of competition forms may become distorted toward an assumed ideal that loses sight of its original function, with what were once working breeds becoming unhealthy parodies of themselves.

This metaphor could likely be extended, but would soon become silly.

The first book you wrote, Shards of Honor, had a relationship evolve over the course of part of the novel—with the second part mostly about the hero’s will to get back to that relationship. Since then, you’ve written a long book series in which relationships evolve over volumes. Could you talk a little about the challenges and rewards of pacing the evolution of character changes in the short form and in the long form?

Well, obviously, one can do more complexity at longer lengths; series books, with sometimes years between the writings, have the benefit of longer or deeper or second thoughts, and also have the ability to implicitly or explicitly comment on what went before. For someone who thinks as slowly as I do, this has obvious benefits.

Rewards of the short form, hmm … Focus, I suppose. And getting to the end sooner…

Your latest book, CryoBurn, came out in 2010. In it, Miles goes investigates a cryogenics corporation that the dying go to freeze themselves, gambling that one day their illness will be curable. Could you tell us a little about the process of creating that novel?

I’d been thinking about doing something with the demographic and social-psychological implications of cryonics for at least a decade and a half before I came to grips with CryoBurn, due to knowing a reader who worked for Alcor. A lost Miles’s hallucinogenic encounter with a young street kid was sloshing around for years as an unwritten scene unattached to any further story. I had the book’s opening line, “Angels were falling all over the place,” hanging in air (well, jotted in a notebook) for some months before it slotted into its current position. The story’s last line had been sitting in my head for maybe fifteen or twenty years.

***

The long gestation period might have been just right: CryoBurn was a finalist for this year’s Hugo Award.

If we didn’t know better, we’d say she made it look too easy.

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Jeff Lester

Jeff LesterJeff Lester has written for io9, Newsarama, and Comix Experience’s Savage Critic website, as well as for Telltale Games’ Sam & Max and CSI series of video games. With Graeme McMillan, he co-hosts Wait, What?, a podcast reviewing comics, graphic novels, and the latest developments in the comics industry. He currently divides his time between San Francisco and the amorphous internal landscape of his own head.