I had the good fortune of meeting Brenda Cooper at an impromptu gathering of authors near the end of World Con in Denver a few weeks ago. I was quite gratified at the time to find myself in the company of several talented individuals, all of whom are further down the path of science fiction and fantasy publishing than I am. In that conversation, woefully cut-short by the pressure of travel time, I got to meet Brenda and learn a bit about her, so it was a great pleasure to continue our conversation via e-mail for this interview series. In addition to being a science-fiction author, she is also a futurist and public speaker. All of her books, from her collaborations with Larry Niven to her solo works, have been well-received and well-reviewed.
BC: I’ve always wanted to write. I submitted my first story when I was nineteen, to Asimov’s, and I got a great rejection. That positive rejection kept my hopes up while I raised a child, published and read poetry on the beach on Laguna Beach, California, and got a business degree. I didn’t attempt to publish prose again until I was about 36. I took a class called “lifewriting” from my friend, author Steven Barnes, and during that class if dawned on me that angst about not writing enough would never get me published, and I finally buckled down. I took a class at the local junior college, and ran into an instructor who loved words. A story from that class was the first one I published professionally, but it had a little help. I showed it to Steve Barnes’s friend, Larry Niven, and he could see how to fix it, and it went from 8 pages to a co-authored novelette and made the cover of Asimov’s as “Ice and Mirrors.” For a while, I wrote more with Larry, who is brilliant and sweet, if sometimes a tough teacher. Since then, I’ve taken workshops with Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch (who teach together on the Oregon coast), and the singer/songwriter Cris Williamson. At this point I have twenty or so stories out and three novels (one with Larry Niven, two solo).
TH: What is The Story of Brenda? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
BC: I think it’s a series of poems. A single poem captures a moment, an image, a feeling. A series would catch all the Brenda’s I’ve been, and leave room for all the Brenda’s I’ll be. I mean, really, at different times in my life I’ve been a forklift driver, a single mom, a student, a screw-up, an athlete, a fat chick, a runaway teen, a sailor, a horsewoman, a writer, a futurist. I still have time to be more poems.
TH: A phenomenon that I’m seeing through doing these interviews is that the majority of professionals to whom I have spoken have a drive or an urge to write stories that goes back to childhood, but they often put it aside and come back to it later in life, perhaps around or after age 30. This appears to apply to you as well. Why do you think that is?
BC: Well, for me it happened because I felt guilty writing when I was supposed to be (mowing the field, feeding the horses, taking care of the kid, training the dogs, cleaning the house). I didn’t think I could write and be a parent – parents are supposed to feed the family, not themselves. That’s a myth – at least the second part of that sentence about how we’re not supposed to get what we need. I’ve heard Ursula LeGuin talk about writing with her children in a playpen beside her computer. I’m as busy now as I used to be; there’s a twelve-year-old and three dogs in my current household. I find plenty of time to write. The dam broke when I went back to junior college and took a class. Writing became homework, and I had permission to do homework, and thus, finally, permission to write. Internal permission. Humans are really funny creatures, and we spend a lot of time getting in our own way. It took me a while to get out of my own way.
TH: Another phenomenon is that many writers seem to have a laundry list of “previous lives” that are all over the map.
BC: Maybe since most of us read wonderful books when we were kids, we know that heroes are supposed to try new things and be curious? Seriously, I’ve noticed the same thing. You have to be a little bit of a risk-taker to publish, and you have to be strong. There’s a lot of rejection slips between your first attempt and your first sale for most of us. You have to have made mistakes and got back up and kept going.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
BC: I always knew. I read early. When I got to kindergarten and they gave me a picture book, I threw it across the room. I went home and cried because the teacher didn’t believe I could read chapter books at five.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I’m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
BC: No stacks of novels. Stacks of stories, and rejections. I have two finished novels I haven’t sold yet – a young adult we’re just now marketing, and a book I love about the end of the Mayan calendar, and which I’m really hoping sells in the next year or so. If not, it may end up being an alternate history series!
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?
BC: Even though I read and write other things, too, my first love is science fiction. The Hugo is the best award in our field, because it’s chosen by fans and readers. My heroes – people like Heinlein and Clarke, are all Hugo winners.ut I think my most important goal – the one I strive for in my books – is to engage people in a good story that also makes them think, even if just a little, about the challenges we’re facing as a species, or will face. I want to start conversations about genetic engineering and prejudice, about nanotechnology and economics.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
BC: New ideas. Problems that need solving. Heroes. Interesting science like multiple universes and the death of suns. People that change the world. I’ve been studying Eva Peron this year, for example. I have no idea why, but she fascinates me, as does the affect she had on Argentina, the way she inspired so much adoration and hatred at once. I’m imagine I’ll write a character like her into a story some day.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
BC: The way the best parts often come unbidden, sometimes even out of a hard day when you’re forcing your way through your word count and suddenly magic happens.
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?
BC: Good question. I’m still pretty early in my career and readings are more friends and family than fans. I get a lot more comments on my website and the blog entries I do fans at readings, and I really like getting email and comments from strangers. I also do some public speaking, and that helps some. Interviews like this are great. I’ve sponsored some podcasts over at Adventuresinscifipublishing and that seems to have helped, too. I carry around bookmarks to give to people that ask, but I try not to foist them on people – you can market too hard. In the end, marketing matters, but how good your book is matters more. I spend a lot more time writing than marketing.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author?If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
BC: I don’t know if you ever make it. You just keep going. But there are milestones. One is being able to buy something you wrote in a real bookstore. The first time that happened (when I could buy the story “Ice and Mirrors” in a Barnes and Noble, I went out to my car afterwards and cried because it meant so much – a dream come true. One day I got a prestigious business award I was proud of in my day job – on a stage in front of two hundred people I smiled at the crowd and told them thank you very sedately. The same day I got an honorable mention in Gardener Dozois’ Year’s Best anthology. The honorable mention by the best editor in the field that year made me scream happiness in the middle of the store.
TH: Are you writing full-time now or still working the day job?
BC: I’m the Chief Information Officer for the City of Kirkland, across Lake Washington from Seattle. That’s means I’m responsible for about twenty-five staff, a few million dollars a year in budget, a bunch of computer systems, and two public TV stations. It’s actually kind of fun. I’m also a working futurist who does some public speaking. All my sales (three books and thirty or so stories) don’t add up to a year’s income with benefits. There is a lot of money in this field, but I have to break the top twenty percent or so to quit working my day job. I’m looking forward to that, but I like what I do. I like writing even more, of course. I get kind of mystified by people who hate how they spend 8 hours a day.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
BC: I’m not there yet. I’m just trying to write the next novel and the next story and get them published. I’m mostly just trying to learn. I don’t know that I’m looking at myself or my brand as a business, although I do know that writing is a business. I work at it all the time, almost every day.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
BC: My goals this year were to finish the YA novel, start and finish the third book in my four–book series, start one more book, and write ten stories. I still have six stories to go, and need to start the next book. So you’ll see WINGS OF CREATION in late 2009, and maybe two other books. If I write them well enough to sell, you’ll see more stories.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
BC: I’ve mentioned a lot of them. A really good one was when Bob Gleason over at Tor Books bought THE SILVER SHIP AND THE SEA and READING THE WIND. That’s when I knew I could do a novel on my own.
TH: Looking back on your career fifteen years from now, what do you hope to see?
BC: Well, by then I certainly should be able to quit the day job, if just by retiring early. I hope I’m writing well, and that each book has been better than the last. I’d love to have a YA career, a science fiction career, and a more popular fiction career – three books a year. I’d like to still be writing some short fiction, since it’s so elegant. I wonder though – given the speed of change, in fifteen years I may need to be writing multisensory game novels on some new cool wearable platform. Who knows? Whatever it is, I hope it’s fun.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
I’d like to encourage people to read science fiction. It’s not your father’s genre anymore – it’s a good read for a lot of people. Be viral. Hands books to your friends. Blog it. All of our books – whatever writers you love.