Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mary Robinette Kowal - sf/f writer and puppeteer

I just finished Mary Robinette Kowal's new novel, Shades of Milk and Honey. It was like stepping into a Jane Austen novel in an alternate Regency England. One in which among the other parlour arts a woman learns like playing the pianoforte or needlework, she also learns "glamour", a magic that enhances the beauty of existing surroundings or creates a tableau all its own from the "ether" to delight guests.

The protagonist, Jane, has exceptional talent in glamour while her sister has the looks. I kept hoping that the glamour would somehow save the world – such have been the novels I'm accustomed to reading. But I realize that in Jane's world, one's station in society and prospects all depend on looks and talent. Not being endowed with good looks, her glamour is everything. And it does save the day and possibly a life on more than one occasion.

Romance isn't my usual genre, but Mary Robinette Kowal has captured that world of Jane Austen and beautifully embellished it with a fantasy element. Her prose is lyrical and smooth. I can see how Mary's other talents have heightened her ability to convey the emotion of her characters, as you'll read in the interview.

Since this interview was conducted, my friend, Gareth Powell (see interview herein), announced the anthology table of contents he's featured in. And there again, was Mary Robinette Kowal, listed at the top with her story, "Birthright" The anthology is 2020 Visions.

Read more about Mary on her Web site where you can also hear her read an excerpt from Shades of Milk and Honey.

AW: Why do you like to write science fiction and fantasy?

MRK: For me, science fiction and fantasy hold the same appeal that puppetry does. They are both the theater of the possible. I'm not limited by gravity or physics or anything else. They also allow me to rotate the familiar view of humanity to see different angles. I think viewing things from the side, as it were, lets me see things more clearly sometimes.

We get used to seeing things one way and science fiction and fantasy, and puppetry for that matter, move past that.

AW: Did you go to Readercon?

MRK: I did! It is on my list of "don't miss" conventions.

AW: Can you give us some personal highlights?

MRK: I have to admit that the weekend was dominated for me by the fact that I got my first hardcover copy of my novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, on Thursday night. The rest of the weekend passed in a wee bit of a hazy glow from that.

I also got to meet Samuel R. Delany when I moderated a panel we were both on called Drop Out, Write On. There were five panelists, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Longyear, Elaine Isaak and Nalo Hopkinson and we are all college dropouts, with varying reasons for leaving. It was really inspiring to realize that non-traditional routes work too.

The funniest moment on the panel, for me, was when an audience member had asked if we thought that the non-traditional route worked better than the traditional one. I demurred, pointing out that Campbell winner David Anthony Durham was in the audience and that he had a degree in English and a Masters in Creative Writing. From there we realized that there were three Campbell winners on the panel so from that sample, three out of four Campbell winners are college dropouts.

Of course, there was another panel on advanced degrees later that also had Campbell winners on it, so that sample isn't proof of anything but it was still a funny moment.

AW: Which conventions are your favorites and why?

MRK: Readercon, World Fantasy and the Nebula Award weekend because there's a focus on fiction and a high percentage of conversations that really get into the nuts and bolts of the genre. Or the spells and wands, depending on your genre.

AW: How has your voice acting and puppetry affected your prose? And vice verse?

MRK: In puppetry there's an emphasis on specificity. Because a puppet generally has no facial expression, which means that every movement it makes carries the meaning. When I write, I find myself using the same sort of language of movement. For instance, in puppetry we say, "Focus indicates thought." In other words, what your puppet is looking at is what it is thinking about.

This is also true for characters on the page. The thing that I have a character notice is what she is thinking about. Added to that is the fact that in fiction I can only show my reader one thing at a time and must rely on them to build a picture based on that. So the order in which I show things also has an impact. I'm essentially manipulating the focus of the character and the reader simultaneously. So, as with puppetry there's little ability for facial expression and every movement, thought and action becomes important.

I'm not sure how writing affects the puppetry to be honest. Largely I suspect that it's because there's 20 years of puppetry experience, which rather outweighs the five or so years of writing.

AW: Why shouldn't all authors read their own works for audio books?

MRK: A lot of writers aren't comfortable with the spoken word. It's a very different skill set than writing. Now, I think that it's a skill most people can be taught but it's not something that comes naturally to everyone. Nothing can kill a beautiful piece of prose faster than a flat, affect-less reading. Where most authors fall down, in my opinion, is that they worry about the words they are reading rather than the story they are telling. Written language developed to record spoken language.

So when someone is reading for audio books, they approach the text the same way one approaches a script, with an eye to using the sound of the voice to enhance what is on the page. Not every author has the tools, or the interest in developing the tools, to do this.

AW: You have tips on your site for reading aloud, don't you?

MRK: I do.

AW: As soon as I saw what your novel was about, I had to have it. Even more so after reading the title of your "Evil Robot Monkey". I'm reading Android Karenina now. Why are so many people attracted to Regency England with its uncomfortable clothes, strict conventions and lack of indoor plumbing and electricity?

MRK: You could ask that question about any pre-industrial historic period or fantasy world. The Regency clothing for women are actually much like wearing a nightgown and are significantly more comfortable than anything preceding it in Europe or the Victorian era which followed. The social restrictions were also much looser and the Victorian era was a reaction to the moral looseness of the Regency.

My own personal reason for setting a novel there were twofold. When I wrote it in 2006, no one else was playing with the period in fantasy. I also found the intimate nature of Miss Austen's novels very appealing and wondered why there weren't any fantasy novels that focused on the story of just one family without an Epic Quest.

AW: Do you have a Shades of Milk and Honey book tour scheduled?

MRK: I do. The list of dates is in the sidebar on my website. I'll be in NC, NYC, SF, Atlanta, and Portland. People can RSVP to events via my author page on Goodreads.

AW: So you're concentrating on the coasts, then. Are you living on both coasts now?

MRK: It feels that way! But no, we moved back to Portland, OR, in September of 2009. I'd like to visit other cities. My publicist and I are talking about a train tour through the south and southwest.

AW: Do you use first readers or critique groups?

MRK: Yes, I use both. They serve different functions for me. Critique groups focus on writer ticks while first readers give me more information about the reader experience. I also will sometimes post rough drafts in a password protected area of my website and invite comment there. I find that very valuable because I get a greater cross-section of feedback.

AW: I read somewhere on your Web site a mention of Iceland. Did you liver there for a while?

MRK: I was a puppeteer on a show called Lazytown, which was filmed in Iceland. I lived there for part of 2004 and all of 2006. That's actually where I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey.

AW: What was living there like?

MRK: It is the most unearthly, beautiful place I have ever lived. I would move back there in a heartbeat if we could figure out how to afford it. Reykjavik has all the benefits of a European capital while being as accessible as a small town. It is clean and sophisticated and at the same time completely in touch with the land. As soon as you leave the city it's like stepping into a saga or Middle Earth.

AW: What about the language barrier?

MRK: Everyone in Iceland is multi-lingual. In school they learn Icelandic, English and a third language. I did make an attempt at learning Icelandic while there, but it's studio Icelandic. I could speak on the set and understand what was happening, but if you asked me to go buy oatmeal, I was sunk. It's an insanely difficult language.

AW: What are you writing (or rewriting) now?

MRK: I'm finishing a novella that will appear in the Cascadiopolis anthology from and also the revisions for Glamour in Glass, the sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey.

AW: Any ballpark pub date on the sequel?

MRK: I think Spring 2011, but nothing firmer than that.

vote it up!

1 comment:

David Scholes said...

Thank you. That was an interesting interview.

This is not a site I visit very often and perhaps I should.

If you get just a moment, maybe you could check out my new sci-fi novella: