Elizabeth Bear won the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for her story “Tideline,” which is about a sentient robotic battle tank and its relationship with a human child. I didn’t get the chance to meet Elizabeth Bear at World Con this year, but I was pleased that at least someone I voted for actually won. “Tideline” also won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial award for Best Short Story. She also took home the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005. So it seems that while she hasn’t been neck deep in the industry for all that long, she’s making all the right waves. (I highly recommend the podcast audio of “Tideline” available in the archives of Escape Pod.)
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
Essentially, I’ve been writing since first grade or so. I’ve been submitting to national markets for rather a long time too. I got serious about selling SFF short stories in 1994, sold a few things to semipro markets, didn’t make my first pro sale until 2002 (during which gap I gave up writing for publication several times, once for three years), and became yet another example of an overnight success with twenty years of effort behind it.
TH: What is The Story of Elizabeth? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick? An epic saga?
EB: None of the above.
The myth of linearity returns! Real people’s lives don’t have narratives: narratives are things that you extract from reality by picking and choosing. Our brains are highly evolved pattern sensing engines, and stories are one of the constructs–the simplifications–we use to make sense of our infinitely complex environments. But we build them, out of the patterns our brains choose to notice, and most of the time we’re not even aware that we’re creating a narrative out of whole cloth. One thing I’ve learned from writing secret histories is how dynamic and aggressive this process is. Tim Powers talks about it, too–you turn yourself into a conspiracy theorist of the duration of writing the book. And the process does give one a lot of insight into how conspiracy theorizing works. It’s practically ingrained in our neurology.
TH: About the myth of people’s lives not having an actual narrative, I should point out that you’re the second of my interviewees that has made that point (out of more than thirty). But you also use an interesting word: “myth.” Myth is exactly what storytellers, like yourself for instance, tap into when crafting something like a novel, a short story, a play, etc. Do you think our myths are built into our brain function? Are Hercules, Jesus, and Ragnarok wired into our neurology?
EB: If you’re asking if I believe in a Jungian collective unconscious, no, not in particular. I think there are symbols and symbol sets that our brains use to tell stories, and they’re very much like the symbol sets that children use when they’re first learning to draw pictures. They don’t draw a particular cat or tree or face: they draw a set of symbols that are meant to indicate cat, or tree, or face. A lot of storytelling is like this, actually–especially fairy tales, myth, and category fiction. Those don’t rely on realism or illumination of a tricky subject for their impact: they rely on a tripping a set of triggers that the reader will experience as rewarding.
Part of maturing as an artist is either committing to that primitive style (and I mean primitive in the technical artistic sense here, not as a value judgment), or making an attempt to move away from manipulating symbols and attempt to draw not a symbolic tree, but a real, precise, individual tree. In writing, we refer to this practice as the complementary disciplines of utilizing telling detail and constructing fabulous reality.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
EB: In the immortal words of Rick Blaine, “That was so long ago, I don’t recall.”
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
EB: Well, I’d like to be a little more financially secure. But wouldn’t we all? Other than that… not right now, not really. Keep writing better books, maybe someday write something of lasting impact: that’s my only artistic goal.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
EB: Inspiration is overrated. *g* I get most of my story ideas through the time-honored techniques of going out looking, hunting them into corners, and banging them on the head with a stick. Seriously, a lot of it is just making time to think, making sure I have sufficient and varied input–books, real life, news, you name it–and putting the butt in the chair and making the words happen. It’s not very glamorous, I’m afraid, but it’s the way things work in the real world.
TH: You bring up a very real point about inserting Butt A into Chair B and leaving it there until exhaustion sets in or bodily needs intervene. Above all, this is what separates the pros from the wannabes, as evidenced from these interviews. Professionals write even without inspiration because that’s the job. Was there a point in your career that you made that realization?
EB: About the time I started selling professionally.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
EB: Finishing things.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
EB: I don’t market. I think it’s pretty much wasted time and effort for authors to pull out all the stops marketing, and besides, it makes you look like an asshole. Nobody likes to go out for a beer with the guy who sells Amway. I mean, come on, all of us have brought home the postcards and bookmarks and tossed them in the recycling bin, haven’t we?
I do have a pretty successful blog, but as it’s mostly geared to demonstrating the oh-so-glamorous life of the working writer (I’ve already worked an eleven-hour day as I write this, and I’m in my pajamas on the couch with Mythbusters on, to give you an idea of just how amazingly glamorous that is) as opposed to pimping my stuff. Which is not to say I don’t announce it when I have something new coming out, but I really don’t expend a lot of energy on it. I figure my time is much better spent, you know, writing.
TH: When you say “successful” blog, in what sense do you mean? Traffic? Quality of content? Dedicated readers? A project well-executed?
EB: Yes. *g*
People seem to like it, and I enjoy writing it.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you have “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
EB: I don’t think anybody ever feels like they’ve made it. If they do, they probably retire.
I have occasional moments when the impostor syndrome cracks and I feel like I might be a real writer, or I feel like I’ve created something pretty decent, but there are a lot more when I wonder who I think I’m fooling. And if I ever start thinking I’m pretty good at this thing, somebody will always be along shortly to disabuse me.
Anybody who is expecting publishing a novel or winning an award to make them complete, or who thinks they’ll be happy if they can just get a book into print, is in for a rude awakening. Life is a journey, and in the real world, there are no victory conditions.
TH: Previous interviewees have said that every time a writer reaches some milestone of their career, the journey simply changes course, because he or she has simply traded up to a different set of problems. Has this been your experience?
EB: Pretty much. I’ve been too busy, frankly, to think much about milestones. There’s not a lot of time for resting on one’s laurels when one is trying to keep the bills paid.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach? Do you write under any pseudonyms?
EB: Elizabeth Bear is a pseudonym. *g* Or at least, it’s the abbreviated version of my real name, which is no secret–it’s on my Wikipedia entry. (And how weird is it to have a Wikipedia entry, I ask you?) Of course you have to look at your writing career as a business. It is a business–a small business, a proprietorship or LLC, usually, very rarely a corporation. A writer’s books are a commodity. We are part of the entertainment industry, though a lot of us seem not to realize it.
We are professionals, and it behooves us to act like professionals, inasmuch as it’s possible. Should that stop you from writing the books of your heart? Absolutely not. With a very, very few exceptions, there’s not enough money in this business to be willing to whore for it… unless the whoring is fun.
Marketing or contract considerations may constrain one from publishing all of one’s books under the same name… but honestly, that’s not the author’s problem. Somebody will tell you if they want you to use a pseudonym. I could make a much better living as an executive secretary. But this is more
TH: I can see from your Wikipedia entry that Elizabeth Bear fits much more easily onto a book cover than your given name. How did you choose it?
EB: I dropped the bits on each end and rearranged my middle names. Just about exactly as you’d expect, given the start and end states.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
EB: Right now, I am suffering through the last hundred pages of the much-overdue and very stubborn sequel to DUST, which is called CHILL, and which hates me and wants me dead. I’m also working on season two of SHADOW UNIT, which is a collaborative hyperfiction project based online on the Public Radio Guilt Model at www.shadowunit.org . And I’ve just delivered two novellas, SEVEN FOR A SECRET, a contrafactual history forthcoming in 2009 from Subterranean Press, and BONE AND JEWEL CREATURES, a steampunk fantasy set in a sort of alternate Morocco, which is coming out in 2010 from Monkeybrain Books.
My next novel will be BY THE MOUNTAIN BOUND, from Tor in October 2009.
TH: Looking back on your career fifteen years from now, what do you hope to see?
EB: A general upward trend in quality and readership, and a hopeful lack of any real shark-jumping moments. Also, I hope I’m not working at Starbucks.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
EB: Selling my first novel, of course. There are some others that come close–fan mail from a writer I grew up reading, for example–but nothing beats the first sale.