Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Kameron Hurley
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Kameron Hurley is a self-described intellectual badass, past winner of the British Fantasy
Society's award for best newcomer, originator of "bugpunk," and a two-time Hugo winner for
nonfiction. Her novels range from refreshing spins on SFnal technologies, grimweird epic
fantasies, and full blown space opera on a classic scale. As she toils in these various genres, she
draws on themes and cultures and mythologies and storylines that most authors wouldn't ever
conceive of applying in our field, all of which in turn makes her work compelling even as it's
familiar in multi-faceted ways.
Schoen: I've read accounts that you've been making up stories since childhood, a common
affliction among authors. So let's start back there. When did you realize you wanted to write them
down, and what was the turning point for you that convinced you you could succeed at such a
thing? And looking back at that moment now, from your current definition of success, what did
you not see that would have made your journey a different experience?
Hurley: My parents were remarkably supportive with whatever I wanted to do in life. They
certainly would have preferred I pursue some of my earlier interests--being an astronaut,
veterinary medicine--but when it became clear that writing was what I really loved, all they
asked was that I get a college degree so that I had something to fall back on. And they warned me
that I was likely to be poor, and not make money at writing. Which was actually a very good
attitude to have going into this business!
I had been writing down stories as early as first grade--stories about flower-spewing volcanos
and alien unicorns--so the interest was there. It just so happened that I enjoyed it enough to
continue doing it, and as said, I was never discouraged, creatively. My creativity was one thing
that I was praised for by my whole extended family. I engaged in a lot of creative play, had
pretend friends, built lots of arts and crafts projects, created villages made out of sticks in the
woods, that sort of thing. I had a very intense imaginative life, and when I realized I had the tools
to write down all the adventures I was having with all those pretend friends in my head, I just did
I don't know that there has been any real turning point where I thought, "Oh, I can succeed at
this!" It was very much an incremental process. I wrote so much as a kid--documenting those
adventures--that by the time I started writing for school, or in workshops, I was already fairly
skilled at pinning sentences together, so I always felt that I was about on par with my peers at
workshops and well ahead of folks in school.
I'm a big believer in the idea of active practice. It's not so much that any of us have inherent
talent for something; it's that we are willing to put in more time than other people to master it,
and those hours--especially early in childhood--add up.
In large part, it's a very privileged thing I had, all that time to imagine and document things. I'd
watch movies on weekends with my family, and when my grandmother looked after us during the
day we had limited TV viewing as well. For the most part my mom wanted us to get outside or
play with our toys, and I built stories to entertain myself. Having that level of imagination has
been really useful for me in other ways, too, and I think any type of creator, from a software
designer to an architect, can benefit from that kind of skill. It's not something we're all
encouraged to cultivate as children, which is a real shame.
Schoen: You've talked about the value of anger, channeling it to avoid complacency and
boredom. On the other side of things, when I read your work I find a kind of dark joy. Part of that
is my appreciation of your voice, but there's also something in the agency of your characters, how
they're fully realized in the course of their story and being true to themselves, for good or ill. It's
not necessarily that they're larger than life or more powerful or capable than other people, but
perhaps more that their limitations and moral underpinnings have been revealed as well. Is this
deliberate or am I projecting this onto your fiction?
Hurley: A lot of my work is about finding the will to go on even when you know that the odds
are stacked against you. So I suppose there's a lot of grim joy in that. I call it "grim optimism."
This sense that yes, things are probably going to be bad, but you're not dead yet, so enjoy life
while you can. Some of this just comes from my own experiences in life, and the fact that I've
got a chronic illness that will eventually do me in. You appreciate life a lot more, the humor in it,
when you're always one screw-up from dying, but it's a very grim sort of humor.
Writing for a living is also one of those professions where you have to get used to people saying
"no" to you a lot, and using that negativity to drive you. I do, at least. My whole life has been
about using failure and rejection as motivation. When someone says "You can't" or "You aren't
good enough" my response is to get fired up and think, "I'll show YOU!" This attitude drives a
lot of my most persistent characters.
Telling people that the purpose of life is to be happy all the time dooms them to thinking they're
doing something wrong. Happiness is like summer in Alaska. The reason summer seems like
such a magical time in Fairbanks, Alaska is because you've been bombarded by frigid darkness
for eight months prior. It's the darkness that makes the return of the heat and the light so
incredible. Some of the happiest moments in my life came after some of the darkest. Now when I
go through dark times I say, "What would have happened if you gave up that last time things
were bad? You would never have experienced those great times. The great times are coming after
this. You just have to get through this."
Some of my most dynamic characters, and some of the most dynamic people I meet in real life,
are people who have been through and understand these cycles.
Schoen: One of the things I enjoy most about your fiction is that the plots are character-driven,
as opposed to the conflicts calling the shots and demanding actions that could be fulfilled by a
range of people and the protagonist just happens to be available. This results not just in more
agency for your characters, but an intensely personal connection for the reader. Can you speak to
how this emerges from your writing process? Is it effortful and the result of long hours spent
throwing yourself at some authorial wall, or does it all happen within the recesses of your
unconscious and simply emerges when you sit down to write?
Hurley: My writing process is a hot mess. The books in the Worldbreaker Saga, especially the
first, Mirror Empire, went through a lot of revisions. I had an idea of things that needed to
happen, but in the first couple drafts, it just felt like the characters were getting pulled along by
this greater plot. They had nothing personal invested. They had no personal motivations. It made
them feel like cardboard people getting pushed around on a chessboard. So I did actually go back
and work out their personal motivations, and I used those personal motivations as the basis for
many of their decisions--many of them disastrous decisions!--that feel much more true and
organic because they come from the characters now instead of the plot.
The God's War Trilogy was much more organic because they had simple quest plots. I spent a lot
more time building personal goals and challenges for the characters and using those to
complicate the otherwise fairly simple plots. The Worldbreaker books, being far more epic in
scope, got more plot attention early on, and character attention later. Even though I knew the
characters well, and came up with them before the world, their motivations were always
swallowed by the larger plot in early drafts.
The answer, then, is "It depends." Every project is different. In my space opera, The Stars Are
Legion, I started out with the worldbuilding and an amnesiac narrator, but had no idea why she
had amnesia, only that it needed to help drive the plot, as it is in many ways a mystery novel, too.
To some extent I wrote it this way because I enjoy finding out things about a book at the same
time that readers do. The downside is that it requires me to spend an inordinate amount of time in
revisions. Every time I thought I'd landed on the series of events for that book, something
wouldn't work out, and I'd have to go back again. My agent finally got me on the phone for like
an hour and we hashed out the series of events based on what it was, emotionally, that the
characters would do in reaction to each other.
I'm very happy with the final result, but it was a long slog to get there.
Schoen: A question I never tire of asking authors is how do you decide what to keep, because no
matter how brilliant a tale you craft--or possibly because you've done so--there are always
going to be readers who want to know what happened before, what happened after, what about
the people who were left behind as the protagonists raced on to the next scene, or the spear-carrier who would have left for the night with the protagonist if only the demands of the plot
hadn't prevented it, and so on.
What are your thoughts on the balance of only including those things--be they characters or
scenes--that further the narrative engine of your tale, and indulging in gratuitous "darlings" that
you know in your heart your readers will thank you for, even if they do cost you some story
Hurley: To some extent, this is just something you learn by doing it over and over again. Pacing
is a crucial skill. You have to know when something adds to the forward momentum of the story,
and when it feels bogged down. I always re-read my manuscript with an eye toward pacing. I've
added whole chapters just for purposes of pacing, like, hey, it moves too fast from this fight
scene to this fight scene, so let's put in a more contemplative scene where we explore something
else and move forward another character's emotional arc, maybe? Brandon Sanderson gave some
great advice on scenes, which is that we, as readers, should feel a sense of forward momentum in
every scene. We need to feel a sense of progression. If the characters and situation remain the
same from one scene to the next, we aren't going to be pulled along to the next scene with any
sense of urgency.
Occasionally I will disagree with editors about the necessity of one scene or another. Other times
it serves as a red flag when I'm desperately invested in a scene that an editor wants to cut. That
doesn't always mean it needs to be cut. It just means the editor isn't seeing what I am in the
scene, and I need to make it more clear and relevant and engaging. Boring plotty-dialogue and
fight scenes tend to get reworked the most. Again, it's not always that it needs cutting, just that
it's not engaging.
As for what worldbuilding aspects to leave in or out, that's easy. I tell readers only what they
need to know for the purposes of the story being told. So in the God's War Trilogy, you don't
need to know how these people all got to this planet or how it was terraformed or even the nitty-gritty of how the war started. You don't need to know how the bug magic or communications
systems work any more than you need to know how your cell phone has been manufactured in
order to use it. Yes, this frustrates some people who love the technical stuff, but it's just not a
part of the story that would create forward momentum. It would bog it down.
Schoen: Moving on to your new book, The Geek Feminist Revolution, let me begin by admitting
that as a middle-aged, over-educated, white, cis male, I'm probably more in need of these essays
than most. Scaly, cannibalistic llamas aside, in your Hugo-winning "We Have Always Fought,"
you talk about "truth," not so much in the familiar critical terms of objective and subjective truth,
but more how as a culture we rewrite (or to use your term, "erase") portions of reality to create
the truths we all accept. They become default, unmarked, such that attempts to tell stories that
contain (or, heaven forbid, opt to feature) more accurate portrayals stand out as exceptions,
sometimes praised, sometimes derided, depending on what spot of ground the reviewer is on.
We know that human beings carve up and label reality into bits that serve, consciously and
unconsciously, various agendas, rewriting our experience of gender, race, religion, political
affiliations, social status, and so on down the line all the way to the most seemingly trivial of
ways we can categorize two different people. As an author, do you find yourself always obligated
to educate (or at least illustrate) these things? Or to put it another way, is it always lazy to
surrender to overriding cultural narrative, or do you sometimes just want to tell a story that
reaches a wider audience that is just looking for entertaining fiction and not engaged in
consciousness raising for their own good?
Hurley: First, I write incredibly entertaining fiction. I mean, God's War is about a former
government assassin tracking down an alien gene pirate in a world at perpetual war. There's bug
magic and toxic miasmas and car chases and heads get chopped off. It's basically Mad Max in
space. The Worldbreaker Saga is about a secondary world that has to fight their doubles in a
parallel universe in order to save themselves during a cataclysmic cosmic event. It's awesome.
I don't know where this belief comes from that reading about people who aren't like you, who
live in different ways and operate under different moral imperatives, is good for you but boring,
like eating your vegetables. If you've ever eaten, like, Ethiopian vegetarian dishes, they are
incredible. But people think "vegetable" and imagine boiled broccoli unceremoniously tipped
onto their plate, where it promptly dissolves into a disgusting green mush. Honestly, people
serving me up a novel that has the same tired, contrived ideas about heroic dragon-slaying men
and the women who love them is the equivalent of serving me up a plate of mushy broccoli.
I demand better. I love writing what I write. That said, I wouldn't say I'm writing it for, like the
generic default "assumed" audience. The majority of readers are actually women, and there's a
huge and passionate readership that's, you know . . . not white. Questions like this interest me
because they also assume a lot about the typical reader, which I think is unfair. I'm not writing
for the sixteen or sixty year old white guy who leaves mean comments on Reddit. Yes, I do have
plenty of those readers, but they aren't my target audience. There is nothing I love more than
when someone comes to me at a signing who is very clearly just the sort of person I wrote this
book for. You can see it in their faces. They are so grateful, because they have seen so few people
write about them. I mean, 30% of America is made up of white guys. I'm writing for the other
70%. Though I'm certainly happy to be read by all, I do find it interesting how angry that 30%
gets when I say that. When you get so used to every book being by, for, and about you, it feels
like an attack when someone says, "Actually, I didn't make this for you, but I'm glad you like it!"
If I feel any obligation as an author, it's to write stories that matter to that 70%.
My day job is in marketing and advertising. If I want to write something I think will make 100%
everyone happy just to make a buck, well . . . that's what I do anyway. Why would I come home
and spend the rest of my life writing stuff I didn't like and hope that it would stick? The truth is
in this business that writing what you think "the masses" will like is still no guarantee of success.
And in the meantime, you end up mortgaging your soul and slowly dying from creative burnout.
As for audience, I do think that people have been slower to see the changes happening with
what's being read and published. The Mirror Empire has sold pretty well, and it was a book
turned down by all but one publisher a couple years ago. Now I'm having no trouble selling far
edgier work, because the market is hungry for it and we have the numbers to show for it. I was
really surprised to see how many people have already pre-ordered The Stars Are Legion, which is
easily my most wild book to date.
Every book we've ever read says something about the world, and our place in it. By showing
who can be the hero, and who gets to have a story, it's also showing you--by omission--who it
thinks can't be the hero, and who it thinks doesn't deserve to have their story in print. By saying,
"In the future, everyone is white and will marry and treat each other just like they do in your
vision of the 1950's suburbs of Pleasantville, USA!" is also a very political (and depressing)
thing to say. My grandmother notes often that the actual 1950's were not at all like our historical
perception of it, yet it is this perception we use to create stories about who people are, and who
get to be people, and how human societies organize themselves. It's all fake. It's all stories.
I choose to tell better, more interesting stories. And no, I never get tired of doing that!
Schoen: There's a lot of excitement among your fans for your first stand-alone novel, The Stars
Are Legion, coming next January for Saga. I've heard it described as a blend of Ann Leckie and
China Miéville--which is enough to make me want to throw money at you right now--but also
as a Mad Max meets Henry V epic adventure between the stars. Hype aside, what's your approach
to Space Opera? Which of its tropes to you like and respect, and which do you think need some
serious updating? What hints can you drop here as to how you plan to turn this sub-genre on its
head or at least give us some fresh lenses through which to view it?
Hurley: I like that Ann Leckie meets China Mieville comparison, because that does seem very
apt. I come out of the New Weird writing tradition, which has ceased to be a real category
anymore in science fiction, but lots of us still write it. I'm taking many of those New Weird
tropes--body horror, creepy bio-tech, etc.--and applying them to a legion of organic worldships
led by various families and factions. You get the politics and claustrophobic setting of a ship-based space opera, but with a crunchy New Weird veneer. It's about a woman who wakes up
with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family, and she finds herself smack in
the middle of a genocidal, inter-generational war between two families. She's told she's their
salvation--the only person capable of boarding a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion.
She's got to choose a side and join in a battle that will take her from the edges of the Legion's
gravity well to the belly of the world.
Like all of my stuff, it's a wild ride, and it's been both fun and frustrating to write. This one's
going to knock your socks off.
Schoen: Thanks, Kameron. Note to self: order additional socks.