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Interview: Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist series has been described as “Jane Austen with magic.” The fourth book, Valour and Vanity, is out now.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.

Your new book is called Valour and Vanity, and it’s the fourth book in the Glamourist series. Why don’t you tell us a bit about that series?

The Glamourist Histories are set in the Regency. They take place between 1814 and 1818, and they are basically Jane Austen with magic. Pretty dresses, and then the magic, glamour, which is where the series gets its name and is kind of like painting with light; it’s creating illusions, and it’s largely useless, which is why it’s something that young ladies of quality are taught to do. The fourth book is a little more swashbuckling than your usual Jane Austen fare. We’ve actually described it as “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven with magic.” It’s a heist novel of manners.

The different books in the series have all been in different subgenres, right?

I joke a little bit that the third one is secretly a political thriller disguised as a Regency romance.

I was really interested in reading about the second one in the series—it’s a spy thriller and features Napoleon and stuff like that.

It’s a little quieter than most fantasy fans are expecting when they go in because my main character, particularly at the beginning of the book, is the product of an English country drawing room. She’s newly married, she’s a little naïve, and although she’s very smart, she’s dealing with a lot of stuff she hasn’t dealt with before. The first part of the book has a drawing room feel, in part because she is not in on the spying that’s happening, and then once she understands what’s going on, we get progressively more swashbuckling as the book goes on.

I was reading that you also deal with the Luddite uprising, and that’s interesting to me. What’s your take on the Luddites?

The Luddites are in Without a Summer, which is the third book. One of the things that I found really interesting about the Luddites as I was researching was I think of them as being people who are afraid of technology, which is not actually the case.

The Luddites were protesting a social shift. Basically, up until weaving machines came into being, weaving was something that was done at home. It was skilled labor, and it was something the whole family was involved in. Then you would take your wares to something that was called a factory, but it’s not like what we would think of as a factory today. It was where people would collect things, and it had multiple people working for it, but you would work at home and bring things in. The weaving machines meant that suddenly you had to work outside the home, so childcare became an issue, and it was something that unskilled labor could do. It was a huge disruption to the life of the Luddites.

What I’m doing with this is I’m playing with actual Luddites, because this is the tail end of the Luddite movement, but I’m also using their uprisings as a model for something that the coldmongers are going through. Coldmongers are glamourists who can chill things. They can’t completely freeze something, except under very rare special circumstances, but they can cool things. They are usually employed in greengrocers and things like that. There’s a conflict regarding their employment, so I was basing a lot of that on what happened with the Luddite movement.

I heard you say in an interview that when the coldmongers come into this, that reveals that the series is almost science fiction in a way.

If anyone is paying attention to what I’m doing, the glamourists are manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum. Specifically, what the coldmongers are doing is a thermodynamic transfer, but I have to communicate all of that without using a lot of those words because I do try to be period correct in language. I have a scientific basis for everything that is going on in the magic, although if you look too deep, at a certain point it does fall apart because it’s magic.

I know a lot of science fiction fans, and there seems to be an enormous crossover between science fiction fans and Jane Austen fans. Do you agree with that? What’s your take on that?

I do. I think part of it is because there’s a crossover between fans of a lot of different things and Jane Austen fans. One of the things that Jane Austen is really good at is the small, telling detail. A lot of times, that small, telling detail is something that science fiction spins on—that one thing that you thought wasn’t very important, but it turns out to be the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins. I think there’s a fondness for that. Of course, she’s heavily character-based, so it’s easy to get sucked into what is going on with the characters, and that’s appealing.

Let’s talk a little bit more about this newest book, Valour and Vanity, which takes place in Venice. Actually, I just interviewed Christopher Moore in our last episode, and his book, The Serpent of Venice, also takes place in Venice, so it’s an interesting coincidence. Why did you decide to go to Venice for this book?

To be honest, one of the reasons that I decided to go to Venice was because of a mistake that I made in Glamour and Glass: I sent them to Brussels, where I’d never been and where everyone speaks French. I don’t speak French. So, I decided that with this book I was, by God, going to send them to a country where I spoke the language, because I do the audiobooks. I knew that I wanted them to be working with glass, which meant that I had two choices. One was Bohemia, and the other was Venice. Of the two, I don’t speak Czech and wasn’t going to learn it. So, they went to Venice. The other thing that Venice offered, and I didn’t know this when I started researching, was that Lord Byron was living in Venice and had been for a couple of years in 1817, which is when the book takes place. As soon as I saw that, I changed a lot of my plot on the spot, because how can you not use Lord Byron? He’s an amazing historical figure.

Maybe for people who aren’t as familiar with him, do you want to say what it is about him that makes him so attractive as a character?

Lord Byron is the prototypical brooding hero. He is the archetype from which the fictional ones stem. He was, and still is, regarded as one of the best English poets. He was a little bit of a playboy. Caroline Lamb famously referred to him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He seduced everybody, and also got into terrible trouble. Reading his letters, he’s an amazing flirt, and he is, of course, a wonderful wordsmith. He’s a very dynamic figure. He went off and sailed with pirates, although he denied it, while also saying that he did, all at the same time.

Could you say a bit more about that? What’s the pirate part?

He has a poem called “The Corsair,” and it’s this wonderful epic about Barbary corsairs, the pirates. There are several references that Byron makes in letters, in essays, in which he hints that he actually went and spent some time with them and that was how he knew what to write, but at the same time he absolutely says, “No, of course I didn’t spend time with pirates. That’s absurd.” He’s an unreliable narrator of his own life.

The opening chapters of this book involve a pirate attack. Did you live with pirates for a time to research this?

I did. I did live with pirates for a number of years. Four years I spent on the board of The Science Fiction and Fantasy—I mean no, there’s no piracy involved there.

Another thing involving Byron in this book is that you have an original Lord Byron poem that you wrote for this book. Tell us about that.

That was a pain in my hiney. Because I’m dealing with an alternate history, I actually had a Lord Byron poem that I was planning on using. I had written this entire scene around the poem, and I had the date wrong that it came out. For the scene to function, I needed it to be something that he had not yet published, and I had the publication date wrong. I needed to replace it, but I had this whole scene built around it. I couldn’t find anything suitable from before 1817, so I took an existing poem and used that as my template and wrote a Byronic poem. There are still sections in it that are actually Byron, so I can’t claim to have written it from scratch. But it was really interesting to sit down and break apart how he used language, the rhyme structure, and the meter. I don’t normally work with poetry, so it was a really interesting exercise for me and probably the hardest thing to write in the entire novel.

Could you articulate anything that you noticed about how to impersonate Lord Byron?

The first thing I did, as I said, was I used an existing poem as a template. It’s much easier to catch the rhythms of someone if you can write on top of what they did. There’s a poem in there called “The Glamourists,” which I actually based on “The Prophecy of Dante.” Honestly, one of the reasons I picked that was because the poem that I was replacing and the scene was all revolving around Prometheus, and this had some lines about Prometheus in it. In the original poem the line is: “Many are poets, but without the name, / For what is poesy but to create.” This is an example of how I’m overwriting things: “Many are glamourists without a claim, / yet what is glamour for but to create.” You can see that I’m very much following his model there. There are places where I have to deviate farther in order to maintain his rhyme structure. He was using something called a terza rima, which means that as he’s going through, the rhyme pattern is ABA, and then the next set is BCB, and the next set is CDC. You can’t shift any one line without having this rippling effect through the thing. There were places where, in order to talk about glamour in this, I had to do fairly significant rewrites. What I was looking at with Byron is he’ll use alliteration: “transformed,” “transfigurated.” He’ll do things like that, fairly long sentence structures. He’s very interesting because the language is not overlabored. Sometimes you’ll hit a poet and it very much feels like you’re reading poetry, even if you broke it apart into blank verse. But with Byron, it absolutely wants to be in the verse, and yet you can also read it straight. I find him very approachable and with a really, really lovely use of language.

So that’s how to impersonate Lord Byron. Do you have any tips for impersonating Patrick Rothfuss?

Actually, I did exactly the same thing. You are clearly referring to either the Twitter extravaganza or the Kvothe fan fiction or both. When I was impersonating Pat as part of “The Real Rothfuss,” I would take sentences that Pat had actually written about his subjects. Someone would tweet at me, “How do you feel about lemonade?” (This is not an actual question.) I would go over to Pat’s blog, and I would type in “lemonade” to see if Pat had said anything about it. Then, I would grab a sentence that he actually said about lemonade, and I would tweak it a little bit so that it wasn’t precisely what he had said before but very close, and then I would tweet that. Or I would just write something, and then if I used any idioms or unusual expressions, I would go back and search to see if he had used it. I used “fifty bajillion,” and I went to his site and looked to see how he used large numbers—large imaginary things. He doesn’t use “bajillion,” but he used—I can’t remember what the construction was now—but it was a different construction of that. So, I used that instead. A lot of it is paying attention to how someone uses punctuation, because punctuation informs where the natural pauses and rhythm of the speech are. And then vocabulary—I built a Patrick Rothfuss spellcheck dictionary, much like my Jane Austen spellcheck dictionary, and it was completely useless because Pat uses all the words.

Do you want to explain how that Twitter thing worked, for people who don’t know?

Pat had not been on Twitter. So over the years, he or his assistants had reserved a Twitter name, and eventually he had six and had also hit the point of “Okay, I really need to be on Twitter.” So rather than just doing what normal people do, which is just to start tweeting, he ran a contest. It was Pat and five friends, and we were impersonating him over the course of a couple of weeks, the goal being that all of the people watching the hashtag “#TheRealRothfuss” would try to guess which of us was really Pat and then vote on it at the end. The one of us that got the most votes would get a thousand dollars donated by DAW to the charity of our choice. I won. I had forty-two percent of the votes. The next closest, @PatrickRothfuss, was Pat himself with fifteen percent. I am unbearably smug about this.

What was the Jane Austen dictionary?

For these novels, I want the language to be as accurate as possible without being distracting, because I feel like language reflects culture. I’m trying to use words that only existed in the culture at the time. So I took the complete works of Jane Austen, I ran it through a concordance engine, and came up with a list of unique words, and that created a spellcheck dictionary. I use it as my spellcheck dictionary. It flags every word that Austen didn’t use, and then those words I look up to see if they existed in the language and if the meaning had shifted.

I don’t confine myself to only words that Austen used, but I do try to confine myself to only words that exist in the time period I’m writing. I give myself a little bit of flex, because a lot of times words will come into the language before they appear in print. But it’s interesting to see the things that there just aren’t words for yet. And then also words that are completely period correct that I cannot use because they sound like an anachronism—like “electricity”: Can’t use it. Jane Austen did; I can’t.

I’ve also heard that different slang expressions go in and out of style. So, a word like “fly”—like “that’s so fly”—is actually fairly archaic, but if you were to use it, people wouldn’t believe you.

Absolutely. “Dude” is from the early to mid-1800s. It’s not in yet as a word in Austen’s time, but you will run across that in Victorian literature. “Look at that dude standing on the street.”

Speaking of cool stuff that you can’t use, tell us about the steampunk wheelchair.

In the fifth book, Of Noble Family, I had the need for a wheelchair, so I was researching to see what they were actually called. Was it a wheelchair? Was it a wheeled chair? Invalid chair? What was it called? “Wheeled chair” is the answer, mostly, but while I was researching that, I came across a chair by Merlin—yes, an inventor named Merlin—so immediately I’m like, “Well, that’s going to be tricky to use.” The language about this wheelchair includes a small steam engine attached to it.

I’m like, “What?” because this is something that was invented in 1811. The problem is—even though it is, of course, completely accurate to use it, even though I could come up with a way to explain why this existed in the world so that it didn’t seem like an anachronism—there was no way I could keep it from looking like steampunk, because the moment we see a steam-powered gadget that is not something that is in our common-knowledge vocabulary, we will assume that the author has made it up, and that it’s a steampunk invention. It’ll take it into a different genre, and these books are not in the steampunk genre. So I was like, “I cannot use this.” As a weird trivia note, the first automobile—the first self-powered, horseless carriage, steam-powered—was in the 1750s. Also can’t use it—totally looks like steampunk.

You mentioned the fifth book in the series, Of Noble Family, which is not out yet. Is there anything you want to say about that upcoming book?

I don’t have a good elevator pitch for it. The thing I say is “Jane Austen takes a walk on the dark side,” which is so misleading for what the book is. I also joke that I appear to have invented the genre “Regency grimdark.” In the book, my main characters go to Antigua to a slave plantation, so it is dealing with slavery and race and lots of family issues. I don’t pull any punches. So it is Regency grimdark in a lot of ways. But there’s still the love story; there’s still humor. From my beta readers, I think that all of the things that keep people coming back to the books are still there. It’s just a grim topic.

What do you think about the way that Jane Austen handles race, and how are you handling it yourself?

Actually, the interesting thing about Jane Austen is that people tend to, from a modern lens, think that Jane Austen didn’t deal with race at all or slavery, which is not true. The thing about Jane Austen is that she was writing for an audience of her contemporaries, so she could do references to contemporary events and people would totally know what she was talking about.

For instance, in Emma, she talks about Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Elton’s father, and the line is something like, “. . . was a merchant—if we can call him that—of Bristol.” Now, anyone in Jane Austen’s time period would know that Bristol is famous for being a slave market. So, she’s making these very pointed references to things like that all through the books.

She does a lot of social commentary. In her last book, Sanditon, which was unpublished, the most eligible young lady in there is Miss Lamb, who is, using the parlance of the day, a mulatto from the West Indies. There’s a lot of West Indian characters in the novel, all of which are seen as people who are high in stature, who are desirable to have in town because they have money. There is the racism that we know today, and our interpretations of it is very, very different from the way it actually played out, which is not to say there was not racism in the period, but it doesn’t happen the same way that it does in the contemporary United States.

When you say somebody at the time would know that Bristol had this implication, how do you know that? Is there an annotated version, or do you just know that much about it?

At this point, I’ve just done a heck of a lot of research. Actually, there are a couple of really good annotated editions, if you’re interested in such things. The one I recommend is by Harvard Press. They’re doing all of them—the Annotated Austen series—and they’re large, beautifully illustrated books and very well annotated. I highly recommend those.

When you’re writing Of Noble Family for a more contemporary audience, do you feel that you need to handle that differently?

This is a yes and a no. I am not going to alter the views of the time period. I try to give my characters viewpoints that are consistent with the period in which they live. What I have to do, though, is help my readers unlearn some of the things that they know.

For instance, one of the things I had in reaction to a couple of early drafts of Without a Summer and Of Noble Family was a reaction to the fact that I have people of color. I had a number of people saying that Jane and Vincent appear to have very modern views about slavery, and they don’t. At the time, the abolition movement was very big in Britain, and probably slavery would have been overturned a good twenty or thirty years before it was, if it hadn’t been for Parliamentary mismanagement. But people were doing protests, and again, you’ll see this in Northanger Abbey, people were doing protests where they wouldn’t use cane sugar to protest the slave trade. There were all sorts of things going on. In order to explain that to a modern reader—I couldn’t rely on them to know that—I had to insert additional material, the kinds of things that Austen wouldn’t have to do, like talking about how they had signed the abolitionist petitions along with most of England.

Tell us about the Doctor Who cameo in Valour and Vanity.

There’s a Doctor Who cameo in all of the novels, because I am a giant geek. The one in Valour and Vanity is perhaps my most favorite, because it is so completely natural. Lord Byron had a travelling companion, Dr. Polidori, and in his letters and journals—Lord Byron was an inveterate letter writer—he refers to Dr. Polidori frequently as just “the Doctor.” It seems clear to me what’s going on here. Lord Byron wrote journals and letters all the time. There’s a two-week period in which they are more or less unaccounted for. I’m like, “Well, obviously, there is some time-travelling happening there.” Then, Dr. Polidori mysteriously dies, and Lord Byron’s father was “Captain Mad Jack,” so I’m like, “Hello! Could we have some more references?”

When I was writing this, it was clear who my Doctor Who cameo was going to be in this particular novel. It’s Dr. Polidori, who’s “il Dottore” in the novel. Then I had something that was really fun happen, which is that I’m friends with Paul Cornell, who has actually written for the television show. He was joking about one of the previous ones and had said something about how he should tweak the dialogue for me, and when I wrote this, I was like, “Were you serious about being willing to tweak dialogue?” He said, “Yes!” So, I sent him those scenes. In this particular incarnation, the doctor is an odd young man with a fez. So he Matt-Smithed him for me, and sent it over and said, “You’ll probably have to tone this down a little bit.” He was right; I did have to pull it back a little bit, but not as much as you would think. I just had to get rid of a couple of pieces of archaic language.

Speaking of the language like that, you mentioned that you did the audiobook for this. Tell us a little bit about what it’s like doing the performance of your own novel.

I am an audiobook narrator, so I narrate for other people. When I’m narrating my own work, one of the things that I have the luxury of doing, which I don’t when I’m recording someone else’s, is that if it doesn’t play well for audio or if it’s just awkwardly phrased, and I don’t realize it till I’m narrating, I can make changes, which is glorious. Then we record at a point in the production process where I can go back and make those changes to the print version so that it matches the audio. That’s just a really lovely thing.

The flipside of this is that, with some of the other books, I have forgotten that I was going to be the one narrating it, and I’ve put in some things. I hit them in the book, and I’m like, “Really, Mary? Really? This seemed like a good idea? Including a song that you don’t know in the book? That was a good idea? Because now you have to sing it. Thank you.” Actually, Valour and Vanity was pretty funny because, as I mentioned, I picked going to Venice in part because I speak Italian. I’m not going to struggle. They speak Venetian at this point in history, which is not Italian. It’s not even a dialect of Italian. People talk about it as being a dialect of Italian, but it’s its own language. So if you are reading the book, you will note I have a couple of places where Italian phrases are used. Every time someone’s talking Venetian, it’s all, “And he said something very rapid in Venetian that she could not understand.” At no point do I use Venetian except for some names.

We have some listener questions for you. On that subject, Zach Chapman says that, since you’re a voice actress and podcaster, he’d like to hear, “What are your favorite podcasts and/or audiobooks?”

I’m a big fan of Escape Pod. I really like their selection. I think they tend to have good narrators. I very much enjoy that. In audiobooks, I highly recommend Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I’m very picky; I actually often will pick books because of the narrator. There are some books that should not be in audio, and I’m not going to give you examples of those, because that’s just mean. But Daughter of Smoke and Bone is phenomenally performed by Khristine Hvam. She’s wonderful—so good. The book is beautifully written, and it’s a wonderful merging of the two media. Diana Rowland’s My Life as a White Trash Zombie, again, really well performed, very compelling story. I very much liked those. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane—I picked that up, and I had heard that he was a good reader, but I hadn’t actually heard him read before, and his narration of this knocked me out of the park. It was just spot on in terms of the emotional intimacy, so really, really beautifully done.

Robert Coleman wants me to ask you about the recent SFWA contretemps regarding women writers in SF and F careers. I don’t know how anxious you are to relive all of that, but is there anything you want to say on that subject?

First of all, as someone who used to be an officer, it frustrates me when I see SFWA’s name attached to things that have nothing to do with us. The fact that there is a science fiction and fantasy writer who had opinions about women in science fiction does not make it something that SFWA did. In this case, SFWA had nothing to do with it. It didn’t appear in any of our publications. I say “our” as if I’m still on the board, but as a member, it didn’t appear in any of our publications, it wasn’t on our forums, it was not in an SFWA space.

So, it bothers me to see our name linked with it when the organization itself, for the last several years, has been taking a lot of steps to become more inclusive and to make the inclusivity more apparent in cases where we have always been welcoming, but perhaps not done such a good job of making sure the door was visibly open. That’s thing one.

Thing two, about women’s careers in science fiction—frankly, what bullshit. When you look at the history of science fiction, women have always played an important role. There’s been a lot of issues with women not being able to identify themselves as women—James Tiptree, Jr. being a prime example of that—and some sexism that was inherent in the era but not necessarily inherent in science fiction and fantasy. I don’t think it’s any more a part of it than it was about the era in general.

You’ll see places where the sexism was apparent and kept the glass ceiling in place, and we’re seeing that change, and we’re definitely seeing a higher percentage of women showing up in fiction, in ballots, as artists. We’re definitely seeing a change, but again, that is not something that I think is inherent to science fiction and fantasy. I don’t think there’s anything about our genre that requires or encourages sexism. I think that it is something that is a problem with the larger society, and that it is something that we have to be aware of and work against and with, but it is certainly not something that is inherent to our genre. I think our genre is actually doing a really good job of calling people out on problems and trying to make changes. Thank you for providing me a soapbox.

You’re one of the hosts of the Writing Excuses podcasts. I just listened to your episode on how to have an opinion as a public figure, and I was wondering if you have any thoughts on when somebody is attacking you online or when there’s trolls and stuff like that. What are the best approaches for dealing with that?

It depends on the kind of trolling that’s going on and each individual person, because a lot of it has to do with how much energy you want to put into it. There are people who attack for the sake of attacking, and I don’t think that you need to give those people any energy. I think that if they are attacking me, personally, that I have the privilege of ignoring them, should I choose to.

When they’re attacking someone else, then it becomes a different thing because, while I do have the privilege and luxury to ignore something that theoretically doesn’t affect me, by remaining silent I am condoning that behavior, and I am leaving the person who is being attacked without any support structure. It depends on whether you are being attacked or whether a colleague is being attacked.

The other thing is where that attack is coming from. Sometimes people will say things that are sexist or racist, and it comes from a place where they have so taken on the aspects of racism and sexism that are inherent to our society that they don’t even realize that it is part of the fabric of the society or something that they have picked up. In those cases, I think that it is possible to attempt to educate the person and hopefully turn them into an ally. A lot of times they’re coming from a place of ignorance. That said, I don’t think that anyone is obligated to educate people. It is exhausting and not your job. But if you’re interested in trying to change the narrative, then looking at where that attack is coming from can be a useful thing if you have the energy—and this is one of the really big things—all of this takes time and energy, and as a writer, you’re supposed to be writing, and you have to make a choice about where your energy is going to be spent.

Sometimes you look at something and think, “I’m just going to back away from this.” Sometimes you think, “This is too important to back away from. I know I’m going to have to sacrifice writing time, but it’s the right thing to do.”

One possible approach is to form your own insect army, right?

You can also form your own insect army, which is something that John Scalzi and I did after someone complained about how all of these new writers were nothing but insects. I’m like, “Sweetie, everyone’s been a new writer at some point.” John’s point was, “Yeah, and insects significantly outnumber you and will eat your carcass.” We formed the insect army, which is basically a way of saying to everyone, “Look, there’s a lot of us, and we have each other’s backs, and you don’t have to try to deal with these things all by yourself.” That is about being a good ally and coming to the support of other people. With a lot of voices, we can make a difference.

Let’s move on to some other fun topics. Tell me about the steampunk cruise that you went on.

The steampunk cruise is so much fun. The next one is coming up in 2015. My books are not steampunk; they’re historical fantasy—and the thing that I really enjoy about the steampunk cruise is that they are very open to other time periods and to any playing with time and culture and genre crossovers. It’s basically a cruise. I never thought that I would be someone who would say I love going on a cruise, but it’s like going to a convention at a really high-end resort and every day the front door of the convention center is at a different location, which is fantastic.

They’ve got three thousand people on the boat, of which on this last cruise sixty-four of us were in costume—sixty-four steampunkers amid a bunch of mundanes, and it was so much fun. There’s this instant tribe marking that happens when you’re walking through the concourse or the promenade and you see someone else who is wearing a beautiful costume, and you’re like, “Oh, we’re in the same tribe. Hey there.” There was this real sense of community, interesting topics, some lectures, some workshops, and then you can go ashore. We went to NASA on this last one, and some people went in their street clothes, and some people went in costume. Great opportunities for photos. We had high tea at a building from the early 1800s when we were in the Bahamas. It’s so much fun to dress up and spend a week with like-minded people.

If people want to go on a steampunk cruise with you, are there any opportunities for that?

I am in fact one of the guests of honor on the next one—the 2015 one. They can go to steampunkcruise.com.

I saw a video of you singing “Roxanne” in the voice of a puppet.

There are times when something seems like a good idea, and then you realize a video camera is on. I’m a professional puppeteer. I was on the cruise, and I was in costume, and there was karaoke happening. I had always thought that it would be hilarious to sing “Roxanne” as if I were a puppet. So, I did that while dressed in Regency costume, because you do, and someone videotaped it. It’s online. “Roxanne, you don’t have to put out the red light.”

That’s a really good puppet voice, I have to say. Leave that to the professionals.

Yes. Don’t try this at home.

Speaking of puppets, you recently did a Sesame Street puppetry workshop. Tell us about that.

That was amazing. I’ve been a professional puppeteer for twenty-plus years, but these days most of my time is spent with writing. I haven’t been doing as much puppetry as I like, and this workshop came up. Now, Sesame Street and Henson used to do these workshops every couple of years, but they’ve stopped for at least a decade. Additionally, they did two workshops with a total of fifty people, but twenty-five in my group. It was taught by Marty Robinson, who does Mr. Snuffleupagus and Telly Monster on Sesame Street; Matt Vogel, who is a long-time Sesame Street performer and is Big Bird’s understudy and does other Sesame Street performers—in the recent Muppet film he was Constantine, the devilish Kermit the Frog look-alike—and then Peter Lentz, who, also in the new Muppet film, is Walter, who’s the main character, and he was also in Bear in the Big Blue House. These are really good performers, and they’re really good teachers. It was really fun. We were using actual Sesame Street puppets. I had my hand up a chicken. That sounded very different when I said that in my head.

You’ve had so much experience puppeteering. Can you think of something you learned that was new at this workshop?

There were a lot of things that I learned that were new, a number of which are difficult to explain in a strictly verbal medium, but Marty was having us do this thing where he was having us pop into frame and out of frame. It was a focus exercise, and the purpose of the exercise was to focus on what the puppet is looking at.

One of the keys of video puppetry is being able to look directly at the camera. Every puppet has a slightly different focus. Where you are standing in relationship to the camera is going to vary how that focus works, so you cannot rely on muscle memory. When you’re doing video puppetry, you’re looking at a monitor. The way I think about it is that the puppet is actually the image on the monitor, and you’re using the figure on your hand to manipulate that image. What you have to do with this exercise is pop the puppet in from the side of the frame, nail the focus directly at the camera, and then go down and pop up again, and again nail the focus, and pop in and out. The goal is to get to a point where it is instinctive.

The thing that Marty said that was a moment of “Aha” because it applies to so many different forms of creative endeavor, including fiction, is: “I make the same mistakes you guys do, but I can correct them fast enough that you can’t see them most of the time.” That was a real moment of “Oh, okay.” This is very much something that is a practice thing and understanding that it’s not that he has developed to the point that, when he pops it in, his focus is always perfect—although it is usually—it is that when it is off, he understands where the problem is and how to fix it so fast that he can do it without it being apparent to someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

A few years ago, we interviewed Ian McDonald on this show, and Ian worked with Sesame Street for a little while, and he said what no one warns you about is how bad those puppets smell on the inside. Is that your experience?

You’re sticking your hand up and sweating. You can use Febreeze. In the old days, they would spritz vodka, and that was an old trick because it evaporated very quickly and it would kill most germs. Puppets can get really stinky inside. No question—personal hygiene as a puppeteer is even more important than at a science fiction and fantasy convention.

We’re just about out of time here. Do you have any other recent or upcoming projects you want to mention?

I have two short stories that are coming out this year in the next couple of months. One is Spectrum Magazine, and that’s called currently “Water over the Dam,” and it’s a story about energy. Then, I have a hundred-and-thirty-five-word short story for Popular Science, in which I’m being paired with an artist, and we’re both exploring the idea of food. Then just more novels, working on the next novels and more fiction.

Could you give us a sneak preview of the hundred-thirty-five-word story? Like the first eight words or something?

Sure, just give me a second to grab that.

As long as that doesn’t contain any spoilers.

It’s a hundred and thirty-five words. Everything is a spoiler. I was very proud of myself for being able to pull off a story with a beginning, middle, and an end in a hundred and thirty-five words.

Was that the assignment?

The assignment was to write a story that was between ten and a hundred and fifty words around the idea of food and that it needed to be science fiction. That was it. So this is the first sentence of a story that’s a hundred and thirty-five words: “Renee scowled at the vertical garden lining the promenade of the space station.”

Great, I can’t wait for the other hundred and twenty-odd words. I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Mary Robinette Kowal, and her most recent novel is called Valour and Vanity. Mary, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.