Occasionally, one encounters a short story that really strikes a chord, provokes thought, and evokes emotion. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s story “Elites” did that for me when I heard it on Escape Pod a couple of months back. But that story is just the tip of this author’s creative iceberg. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a long-time pro, with novel and short story credits that go on for miles not only under her own name but also under three successful pen names. She’s up for a Hugo Award this year for her novella, “Recovering Apollo 8,” which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.
In addition to her writing credits, she sat at the helm as editor of the prestigious Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine for several years, during which time I’m quite sure she rejected a couple of my early and hopelessly lame attempts at short-story writing.
We had an interesting discussion about the publishing industry that went far beyond the bounds of this interview, and I will likely take up some of those points in future installments. But for now, let’s get into the interview.
TH: What is The Story of Kristine? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
KKR: I think it would be a series, written in many genres. <VBG>
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
KKR: I can‘t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. Of course, there were years in there when I also wanted to be a musician and a politician and…whatever else was on the agenda. But those changed. The writing never did.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere stuck in shoe box. I‘m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels some authors had to write before they could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
KKR: My sister has a novel I wrote when I was twelve and sent her chapter by chapter. I have a few other things as well, but much of what I’ve written has been published.
TH: You’re building up an impressive list of published works. Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Are there some unrealized accomplishments that you’re striving for in the near future?
KKR: I have no control over whether or not I make an impact on others. Being a bestseller (which I have been at various times) is also something that happens because of factors coming together. All I can do is write the best book I can. I can make sure each thing I write is the best I can do, and I can honestly work to improve every single day. I have projects which I will not discuss that are beyond my capabilities at the moment. I hope to reach the point where I’m skilled enough to write those stories. But outside goals that other people control—like will I be read in 100 years?–all I can do is the best I can, make sure I continue to please readers, who are the final arbiters of all of that. (Which is as it should be.)
TH: What are some of the things that most inspire you?
KKR: Music in all forms. Excellent stories told by others in various formats, from the printed page to the big screen. I have an essay about this on my website.
TH: You spent several years at the editorial helm of F&SF magazine. What were the biggest lessons you learned during that time?
KKR: That writers need to learn business. The ones that knew business were usually the biggest names and the best writers. The prima donnas were gone in a flash (and they were as difficult to work with as their nickname implies). I also learned that I’m much happier as a writer than I ever was as an editor–even though I‘m good at both jobs.
TH: A lot of genre writers might be hungry to know more about the process by which you built a readership. What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work?
KKR: I don’t promote myself at all. I think that’s a waste of time. I think my time is better served writing the best fiction I can and marketing it to the best possible markets. The work stands for itself. If people like it, they‘ll tell others. The most I do is keep a website so that readers can find me and find other works if they want. But all the promotion in the world won’t make a bad writer popular. It might give him/her a platform for public speaking or interviews, but it won‘t make readers like the work any better. Only striving to improve daily and writing the best work I can will make readers come back. So that’s what I do.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. You’ve worked under several pseudonyms, so is that part of your approach?
KKR: Writing is part of the entertainment business. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Writing is a business, and I work very hard at understanding that business. My husband Dean Wesley Smith and I teach the writing business to other professional writers. (We do occasional classes and we‘re in a teaching cycle right now. See the workshop page on my website.)
Each pen name has a distinct flavor and I guard that flavor. I write in various genres because I read all the genres. Genres, by the way, are just a marketing category used by publishers and bookstores. They understand the business. So should writers–and how to use that business knowledge to their very best advantage.
TH: You say that you don‘t promote yourself at all, but yet you also write under several pseudonyms and teach classes on understanding writing as a business. Marketing oneself is certainly part of any successful business. Isn‘t that contradictory?
KKR: Understanding the business model is extremely important. In publishing, the business model is this: writers market their wares to publishers, who then market those wares to bookstores and (ultimately) readers. Writers who believe their job is to promote those books in bookstores are actually getting in the way of the business model unless (and this is a big unless) the publisher requests the writer’s assistance in that promotion.
Publishers usually have an important reason in asking for that assistance. The reason usually isn‘t sales, but sales velocity. What gets books on the bestseller lists isn’t the number of copies sold. It’s the number of copies sold in a set period of time. So a book that sells 100,000 copies over the space of two years isn’t going to get on a list, but a book that sells 100,000 copies within two weeks of its release will. (Even if the book that sells 100,000 copies over two years ends up selling more in its publishing lifetime (say 500,000 over 8 years) than the one that sells 100,000 in two weeks, the only one that is considered a bestseller in publishing terms is the one that sells 100K in 2 weeks (even if it only sells 150,000 in its publishing lifetime). The other book is called a consistent seller and provides reliable backlist. That‘s different from hitting a bestseller list.)
Writers have no place in the promotion game except as a tool at the right time for the right book—as determined by the publisher.
Writers often get confused about this and think that they must promote the book themselves to market themselves. They don‘t. They need to writer better and better books, which build a readership. The readership will find the new books.
The most a writer should do if the publisher does not request help is a few interviews (when asked), maintain an active website, and keep a list of fans who‘ve contacted the writer directly. Otherwise, the writer needs to write the next book.
What I just gave you is a very truncated version of a marketing class that Dean and I teach professional writers. We spend 5 hours per day at this class over the space of a week. So in no way can I explain all the permutations of this in a short interview.
As for the teaching, we don’t do it as marketing. We do it to pay forward. We can’t pay back our teachers. (Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm and many others.) So we pay forward, helping the next generation of writers. While we make our expenses on these workshops, we don’t make a profit. All we ask is that the next generation, when they become successful, pay forward to the next generation.
TH: Haven‘t you ever read sub-par writing from established popular authors? Does marketing and branding play a role that goes beyond the quality of the work?
KKR: Sub-par “writing”? I assume from the question that you mean sentence by sentence. Haven‘t you ever asked yourself why authors who “can‘t write“ are often on the bestseller list, while the beautiful stylists usually aren’t?
The answer has nothing to do with the stupidity of the mass market reader or even with marketing/branding, as you suggest. (That implies stupidity on the part of the reader–who isn‘t stupid at all.)
What a mass market audience wants is good storytelling. Good stylists are often poor storytellers. Good storytellers know that bad grammar occasionally serves a story. (Haven‘t you ever listened to a good oral storyteller tell a story? That person rarely uses good grammar.) The prose in a repeat bestseller’s book serves the story. And that‘s why the books sell.
As for marketing and branding playing a role, yes they do. They inform the reader that a book is out and good. Or that a favorite author has a new book out. But if that author’s book isn‘t up to par, then the readers will leave. There are some bestsellers whose numbers are down. Usually it’s because they’re no longer telling compelling stories. The readers know what they like and after a while, they won‘t buy–no matter how many ads a publisher buys begging them to pick up the book.
TH: Was there a point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? Are you there yet? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt?
KKR: Others believe I‘ve “made it.” They tell me in various ways, and I appreciate the compliments. I believe, however, that the moment I think I‘ve made it, I’m dead as a writer. I’ll stop working hard. I’ll believe all the wonderful things and never improve. So nope, I don‘t think I’ve “made it” and I hope I never will think that.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
KKR: I never discuss works in progress. (If I talk about them, I kill them.) But the next book up is another Retrieval Artist novel. It’ll come out in February. It’s called Duplicate Effort. Of course, I have several short stories in several magazines and anthologies that are also coming out. I constantly update the website so that people can find these.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
KKR: Hmmm. Gosh, there are so many. I‘m so privileged to be able to do this work and to get to know such marvelous folk who are in the field, readers and writers alike. I would suppose the most memorable (or at least important) moment in my life as a writer was the day I met my husband, Dean Wesley Smith. He was assigned to drive me and another writer to a writer’s conference in Taos. By the time we finished the drive from Albuquerque to Taos, we were a couple. And we‘ve been together ever since. He’s had more impact on my writing than anyone else—all good.