Interview: Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear, strongly identified with speculative fiction, is the Sturgeon and multiple Hugo Award-winning author of over 70 short stories and 20 novels. Her most recent Hugo came last year for Best Novelette for Shoggoths in Bloom. “Born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins,” she tells Book Buzz, “but in a different year,” she now lives in Connecticut “with a giant ridiculous dog, a cat who is an internet celebrity, the best roommate ever, and the roommate’s enormous adolescent cat. Her hobbies include rock climbing and murdering helpless houseplants.”

JMW: You’re best known for your speculative fiction. How do you define that, in terms of your own work?

EB: Oh, I’m sort of bad at definitions. And categories. They’re not my strong suit. I guess I subscribe to the well-worn definition of “Whatever I am pointing at when I say speculative fiction.” I like to call science fiction the literature of testing things to destruction – usually ideas, sometimes planets – but science fiction is only a small subset of spec fic.

JMW: How did you come to focus in this area of writing?

EB: I am a third generation SF fan, so I took it in with mother’s milk. When I began writing myself, there was never any question what I would be writing – I grew up on wildly inappropriate books for children, including Joanna Russ and Suzy McKee Charnas. (They may have been inappropriate, but I don’t see that they really did me any harm. Although I did have the opportunity to tell Suzy that her description of pregnancy was probably what put me off it for all time.)

JMW: What role does lesbianism play in your speculative fiction, and why?

EB: I’ve never really thought about lesbianism having a special role in my fiction. Lesbians are people; my books are about people; therefore, there are likely to be lesbians in my books. (Sometimes these people are nonhuman, which is a different complex of problems, but that’s not germane to the point of the question.) I’m deeply suspicious of identity politics, having grown up in a radically separatist household and experienced it as a toxic paradigm. (I was a childhood refugee of the sex wars.) Apparently, however, the mere act of writing about lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, transpersons, genderqueer persons, and intersexed persons as if they were persons is a radical and shocking act. I’ve been accused of everything from writing gay porn to writing homosexual propaganda to rampant homophobia, and I’ve come to accept that such criticism often reveals more about the agenda of the reader than the writer.

JMW: Your work encompasses short fiction, novels, poetry, graphic novels, and even a bit of nonfiction. Is there any plan or blueprint for this, or is it more impulsive and purely creative?

EB: Oh, plans. I never mastered those either. I mean, I make a lot of them, but you know the old adage, right? Of course there are economic demands – I have to write a certain number of novels to pay the rent. I like short stories because they are easier to experiment in, and it’s easier to push the envelope hard in ten pages than in four hundred. They fill different roles in the ecosystem. Cats and dogs and hawks are all predators, but they all fill different niches.

JMW: You started publishing with shorts in the mid-nineties but became quite productive with novels a few years ago. What changed in your creative life to account for this?

EB: Well, I lost my job after 9/11, which provided more time to write, which produced a creative breakthrough, which led to more publication. The fact of the matter is that early on, I just wasn’t a very good writer. I was thrashing through, trying to learn. Becoming a better writer leads to more opportunities to write.

JMW: You have a lively and wicked sense of humor. Where does that come from and how does it influence your writing?

EB: Hah! Well thank you. Apparently, I come by it honestly. I’m a New Englander and a second-generation Swede, and both groups are noted for a certain dryness of wit. I’ve actually worked exceedingly hard to get any of that into my writing. In reworking some of my older stories, I’ve discovered that one of the flaws in my earlier work is that it’s a bit, well, humorless, and takes itself very seriously.

JMW: You devote part of your website to journal writing, memories, etc. Tell us about that.

EB: My blog! Well, when I was a little baby barely-published writer, I was reading Neil Gaiman’s blog (as who doesn’t?), and he started talking about why he doesn’t blog about writing. And the blog he was describing as not the one he wanted to write, it turns out, was exactly the one I would have wanted to read. So I decided if I were ever a published writer, I would write that blog – one that was a more or less accurate picture of a writer’s daily life. The blogs I love most are the ones where people talk at length about jobs they excel at. So why not write the sort of thing I like to read?

JMW: You publish pretty widely. Any advice for writers about the speculative fiction marketplace, particularly for LGBT-related themes?

EB: There’s a funny story about that. Which is that, for the longest time, I couldn’t sell two stories to the same market. So I established a whole bunch of editorial relationships, which have served me in good stead since. I also have worked very hard to develop a reputation as somebody who meets her deadlines and hands in good work. I have to say that I have never received any pushback from editors or publishers about LGBT content in my work. Some reviewers and readers have been a little freaked out about it (sometimes aggressively so) but that’s their prerogative.

JMW: What should we look for from you in the near future?

EB: An easy question! Bone & Jewel Creatures, a Middle Eastern steampunk fantasy forthcoming from Subterranean this spring. Chill, a post-human science fiction novel forthcoming from Spectra around the same time. The Sea Thy Mistress, a post-apocalyptic Norse techno-fantasy forthcoming from Tor next winter. My most recent release is By the Mountain Bound from Tor, a very, very, very cold book about wolves and valkyries and the end of the world. This book is very close to my heart: It has true love and apocalypse and swordfights and political intrigue and poetry. It’s pretty nifty, if I do say so myself.

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