Here comes another in a long series of interviews with authors I had the distinct pleasure of meeting at World Con in Denver last month. Mary Robinette Kowal and I were introduced through one of the many globs of authors at the con, authors new and not-so-new, globs that migrate, coagulate, split away like mitosis, merge, disperse, etc., in those minutes between panels. During Hugo Awards ceremony, I was pleased to hear her name called as the winner of the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer. So, having already asked her to do an interview for Blogging the Muse, I was even more excited to be able to talk her about her writing career. So congratulations to Mary on her award and future success.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
MRK: I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything and writing was one. Mom sent me to a writing camp when I was in junior high but I didn’t start writing seriously until four or five years ago. I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in 2005 and made my first pro-sale in 2006. At this point I’ve sold 20 short stories, written four novels, landed an agent and was this year’s recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
TH: What is The Story of Mary? Is it a novel? A short story A poem? A limerick?
MRK: I devoutly hope my life is a novel. While I love the short story form, I’d like to live a longer life than that.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
MRK: I have no idea. Honestly. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been interested in story, although that has manifested itself as a career in theater up to this point. I can tell you what got me started writing again. My brother moved to China with his family. My niece and nephew were 11 and 8 respectively, which is not an easy age to connect with over long distances. When they were here, I used to read to them at night so I decided to start writing them a serial. About three installments into it, I thought that I might have something so I sat down, plotted the thing out and wrote a novel. Then I got excited and rediscovered short stories.
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?
MRK: I was fulfilling the story-telling urge in another field. Quite likely, if my brother hadn’t gone to China I wouldn’t have come back to writing. I imagine that every writer will have a very different reason for stopping and coming back.
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?
MRK: Why yes! I have what I call, “Novel 0” which is the one I started in high school. I took ten years to write and is fatally flawed. I have managed to extract two short stories out of it, one of which was my first pro-sale, but the novel itself is firmly trunked.
TH: You’re also a professional puppeteer, so how do you think those things prepared you to be a writer?
MRK: Well, it certainly helped give me a solid sense of dialog and what different voices look like on the page. When you are performing in front of a live audience, you get an immediate sense of how audiences react to story. I think that helped me jump over a lot of the hurdles beginning writers go through, because I was exploring story in another field.
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?
MRK: You know, artistic impact isn’t that important to me. Emotional impact, on the other hand, is very much so. There are authors who hit the bestseller list and aren’t good writers but they are darn good storytellers, you know what I mean? I’d like to do both. I’d like to have pretty prose and a story that grabs you. Awards and things like that are an external measure that one is succeeding, but what’s really important to me have been the folks who’ve read one of my stories and written to me to tell me that it had an emotional impact on them. So, yes, I’d love to get a Hugo or Nebula nomination someday, but mostly because it will be an external yardstick to let me know that my stories are touching people, that something I’ve done is working.
TH: The joy of art is to make the audience feel, whether the result is exuberance or satisfaction or fear or disgust. Unless you’re equating artistic impact with critical acclaim, isn’t emotional impact the same as artistic impact?
MRK: I suppose I should have asked you to define terms first. But no, I don’t think artistic impact is not necessarily the same thing as emotional impact. Take for instance a Hallmark commercial. It undeniably has emotional impact, but does it have artistic impact? Whereas if you look at any of the Dutch still-life’s, which are stunning examples of artistry, they have very little emotional impact. Then too, Michelangelo’s Pieta is an example of something that is both artistically and emotionally compelling. Does that distinction make sense?
TH: You bring up an interesting point on Storytellers versus Prose Stylists. One perception is that Storytellers sell more books but Prose Stylists have a smaller but devoted following. Do you think they ever come in the same package?
MRK: Of course they do.
TH: Looking back on your career fifteen years from now, what do you hope to see?
MRK: I’d like to have a balance between puppetry and writing so I have room to do them both and to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
MRK: Anytime I read or watch something that is better than me, I want to push myself to reach that. Things that make me cry because of how beautiful they are, whether that’s in execution or sheer emotional content.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
MRK: I was going to answer all of it, but realized that you probably wanted me to be more specific. If I had to pick on area it would be the critique and editing phase. Coming from theater, I work in a collaborative environment and I have a fair amount of practice at being a decent judge of my own work, just because I get audience feedback all the time. One of the things that I enjoy about writing is that I don’t have to share the creative process with anyone but at the same time I miss the audience. The critique phase is the only time in the process that I get to engage directly with my audience. Working with an editor is the only time I get to engage in collaboration. I like those two things and think that they lead to stronger work.
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?
MRK: The internet is my friend. When I was nominated for the Campbell, I put together a zip file of some of my short stories and did my darnedest to make sure people knew about them. I also announce and link to all of my short story sales and then spend the rest of the time on my website talking about things other than writing. Other marketing avenues? I should try Second Life, but my computer isn’t fast enough for it to be a pleasant experience.
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?
MRK: Well… winning the Campbell was a pretty big milestone and not one that I fully believe happened. It will take awhile for me to process and to see if it has any impact. The moment though when I thought, “Hey, I can actually do this,” was my sale to “Twenty Epics.” I’d sold three short stories at that point, all of them to the same market. I wasn’t sure if anyone else would ever like my stories. Twenty Epics was a anthology put together by extremely good editors. The fact that they bought the story was astounding. What made it really sink in was when I met a famous, award-winning author, who upon hearing that I had a story coming out in Twenty Epics said, “You got my slot!” They had turned him down. Again, it’s those external yardsticks. It gave me a useful way to measure what I had done.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
MRK: Yes. Absolutely. Now, that’s not the same as taking my writing as a branded commodity. The story is its own thing and has its own demands. But in terms of writing as a career? In the long term, part of what people are buying is the author. That’s why “big name authors” go on the front cover because people look at the name and think, “Oh, I like stories by B.N.A. so I’ll probably like this.” It’s not that the story is better, it’s that the author is a brand they recognize so there’s less risk involved.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
MRK: In the near term, I have stories coming out from Apex and Subterranean online. I’m currently working on short stories and sketching ideas for another novel.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
MRK: That would be winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I had gone to the ceremony with the intention of enjoying being a nominee, but firmly believing that someone else would win. I decided to control the things within my grasp and ignore everything else, so my goal for the weekend was to wear a pretty dress. When Dr. Schmidt called my name… disbelief doesn’t even begin to cover it.