Some years ago, a friend shoved a trilogy of books called The Deed of Paksennarion, by Elizabeth Moon, into my hands. It had a great main character named, of course, Paksennarion. Since that time, I’ve watched Elizabeth Moon’s books explode across bookstore shelves, and she has since branched off into space opera and hard SF, winning a Nebula Award for her book The Speed of Dark. I also happen to know that she sings in a really big choir and was stressing about getting it just right when I contacted her about this interview. Getting it just right is something she reaches for in her fiction, and claims to have not quite gotten there, in spite of her success. I’m sure her fans appreciate her relentless striving.
EM: Started writing in early childhood, but first published in journalism in mid-30s, and first fiction sale in 1985, with a fantasy short-short to Sword & Sorceress III and a hard-SF story to Analog. (It helps to submit stuff. They can’t buy it if you don’t submit it.) More short fiction sales to Analog and F&SF, then first book sales in 1987, to Baen Books. After that, fairly steady progression up the ladder (in the publishing sense); the public high point so far is certainly the Nebula Award for The Speed of Dark.
TH: What is The Story of Elizabeth? Is it a novel? A poem? A limerick? An epic fantasy saga?
EM: It’s an unfinished work that’s been stuffed in a drawer, pulled out and fiddled with, put away again, taken out again, left outside on the porch by accident and rained on, shown to friends, carried around in a backpack, a book bag, a grocery sack in the car….it’s marked all over with pencil, pen, high-lighter, by various people who thought chapter eight was too slow (or too fast) or there was no reason for the protagonist to have done what she did and the motivation was unclear. It’s far too long for one volume but the climax is still unclear…it has flashes of transcendence and amusing incidents, but otherwise all the flaws of a first attempt, with the protagonist wandering from situation to another without any unifying plan. The end is in sight, however, and the latter chapters have shown slightly more grasp of coherent narrative; it’s possible the author may yet round this off in a shapely fashion.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
EM: It was so early that I don’t even remember…I started writing as soon as I could form letters and apparently (family memory) made up stories before that. But I didn’t do more than daydream about being a “real” writer because it seemed such an impossible and impractical occupation. I couldn’t imagine not writing…I couldn’t imagine being published….or, if published, making a living at it. The shift (shaky at first) to imagining publication and even payment came in my thirties, first with nonfiction, and then with fiction.
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?
EM: Right now, survival in the economic maelstrom. Long-term–I have yet to write the perfect book–the book that’s as good as it was in my head. I’d love to look back at a book after five years and not think “Yes, but…” about it. I have books I want to write–including at least two non-fiction. And several non-writing goals as well..
TH: How do you think the economic downturn will affect the publishing industry (aside from massive layoffs at the big publishing houses)?
EM: I’m trying not to think about it and just go on with the work. Entertainment usually lasts through economic downturns, though not all survive..it’s a scary time for everyone.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
EM: Beauty, especially natural beauty but also great craftsmanship in music, architecture, writing, etc. People, especially those who survive and surmount challenges.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
EM: The possibility–there every time I sit down to it–of opening a door into myself or someone else and finding an entire new way of being or thinking. Almost equal to that is the possibility of communicating with readers–opening doors for them, too.
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?
EM: I’m never sure what works and what doesn’t. I suspect that internet exposure is–at the moment–the most successful. Hence websites and blogs. Signing shelf stock in bookstores increases sales at least a little. Providing bookstore clerks with a list of the books in their proper order within series–something their computers don’t tell them–helps them serve the customer who isn’t sure what book five of series two is.
But I’m just not as interested in promotion and marketing as I probably should be. I’m much more interested in the writing itself. And in my spare time, I’d rather be making music or outside on the land. Though blogging and email are a constant temptation–they’re easier than finishing the book.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author?
EM: Not sure what “making it” means because there are so many metrics and the book business is so volatile (as we’re seeing right now.) I’ve made it farther than I ever thought I would, in terms of numbers of books out, sales, effect on readers–and the Nebula Award, of course. By some peoples’ definitions, I’ve made it. But if “making it” is the point at which you sit back and relax, confident in success, all striving o’er…no.
I think the “made it” situation depends far more on the individual writer’s confidence than on any particular level of sales/income/awards/perceived respect of peers. I feel I’ve been extraordinarily lucky on all counts, but I don’t feel “secure” in any of the metrics. Probably a good thing.
TH: What is the milestone you’re seeking?
EM: It doesn’t feel like seeking a final security to me, but like a continuing journey of exploration. My goals are end-of-life goals–things I want to accomplish by then, and those involving writing are all to do with how I write and what I write. Though of course, if anyone wanted to dump major prizes, vast sums of money, and maybe a few honorary degrees on me, I wouldn’t refuse them.
TH: Do you feel like you’ve grown as a writer with every single book? Has growth been steady or in leaps?
EM: That’s a hard one. First, I’m not sure what “growing as a writer” means….and very unsure that a writer can tell much about his/her own growth as a writer. Technically, some things are easier now–if I paint myself into a corner, I have more tricks for getting out again.
I can see, in earlier books, places I could have been more efficient (if efficiency is a virtue…not all books need to be slick and streamlined.) What I recognize as growth in the past 25 years is in other areas of life–having an autistic child provides many opportunities for personal growth, and so do some of the other crises we’ve had…and more upbeat things like travel and the chance to learn new things. If some of that comes through into the books, it should make them richer in characterization. But I’m not the one to judge.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
EM: It’s not a yes/no question. On one side, every professional writer has to deal with the business aspects of a writing career: keeping the accounts, paying taxes, making sure there’s enough paper and printer supplies in the house, meeting deadlines, professional demeanor with editors and the public, considering whether he/she will improve sales or damage them by public appearances, etc. I try to work with the business aspects when I’m not actually writing.
But if the business intrudes into the writing, that hurts not only the writing, but (through that) the business. When I’m writing–when I think about what to write next–the business aspects fall away (to the occasional annoyance of those I work with). I cannot think of myself as a brand–it’s revolting. Someone else can think of me as a branded commodity if they want (that’s the job of agents and publishers.) I’m a storyteller with stories to tell.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
EM: I’m working on a new group of books in the same story universe as The Deed of Paksenarrion-and closely connected to that story. Paks was the stone thrown in the water; this series of books is about the ripples…the people who shaped her as a young soldier are now being changed by what she did and by knowing her. The first book, tentatively titled Blood and Bone, deals with the immediate aftermath of Kieri Phelan’s change from a duke of Tsaia to king of Lyonyha…by the time this comes out, it should be in production.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
EM: Realizing how much something I had written could do for and to others, beyond entertainment. I can’t say any one of those was more memorable than the others–but the first came shortly after my first book was published. As this is a small town, I can’t give any details except that I saw the effect a single book can have on someone’s life–lifting someone from uneducated, unsure, without hope, to confidence enough to continue education and achieve a life far beyond what they’d imagined before.
When The Speed of Dark came out, I started getting equally stunning emails from people who told how it changed their perceptions (of themselves, of autistic relatives, of disability in general).
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
EM: (Do you really want to open that door?) Let’s see. Relevant to writing–there’s increasing evidence from neurological and behavioral research that elements of Story are solidly embedded in the mammalian brain–the satisfaction of fairness/justice in the “lower,” and the full structure of Story in humans. If this research continues to point in the same direction, then storytellers will never lack an audience. Cultural differences in story details do not negate, but merely bring variation to, the core structure. The medium in which Story is presented, however, has neurological implications, as neural plasticity means the brain will adapt preferentially to the medium it encounters….so opera, books, and movies each exercise (and develop) different areas of the brain.
TH: The universality of Story is a fascinating topic. I recently made the case to a composition professor that fiction is simply a different type of rhetoric, in which arguments and value judgments about the desirability/nondesirability of things, such as traits, actions, reactions, situations, etc., are expressed through what happens in a story. Do you consciously direct your stories to do something like this? Or is this just too analytical for what a storyteller does?
EM: More analytical that I am, at least while actually writing.
TH: Was there a point where you had some kind of epiphany about Story? (For me, it was discovering the work of Joseph Campbell. The idea that stories, myths, and archetypes are hard-wired into every human being on this planet was staggering.) Or was there a slow growth that developed over the course of writing several works?
EM: Slightly different–because I grew up in an area with several cultures, and had a chance to listen to oral storytellers, I was exposed to some essentials of Story long before I thought about it. Later, in college, I read Aristotle’s Poetics, and realized that what I’d internalized from listening and reading had been recognized thousands of years ago. My own writing was still mostly unconscious and instinctive at that point, and for years after…it wasn’t until I was asked to teach writing workshops that I had to formalize my grasp of what I did. When actually writing, I’m still only partly aware of what’s going on in the other levels of the book…I seem to have a good plot daemon who handles most of that for me and resents interference. (I can’t outline a book until I’m at least 2/3 of the way through it, often more like 4/5. This is not convenient, but it’s worked so far.)
TH: This is a “chicken and egg” question. Paksennarion is certainly an archetypal character. Was Paks created consciously to have certain”favorable” traits, or did she spring forth whole from your subconscious and demand that you write about her?
EM: Both. (Isn’t that helpful?) Paks came to me as a fully-formed character, demanding her story–she was going to be a hero but she wasn’t yet, and away we went. I kept trying to jump ahead and find out more, but (as above) I can’t do that.