Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Mary Robinette Kowal
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Mary Robinette Kowal has a history with motion and voice that informs her work as an author. A
professional puppeteer, she's intimately aware of the little movements that bestow life on the otherwise
inanimate--I've seen her do this firsthand, sitting next to me, casually animating an object with the
kind of effortlessness that comes from expert levels of practice. That same appreciation of nuance
shows up in her work as a voice actor, recording audio books for best-selling authors like John Scalzi,
Seanan McGuire, and Cory Doctorow. In 2011 she joined Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard
Tayler on the Hugo and Parsec Award-winning podcast, Writing Excuses, dispensing practical writing
advice to listeners in entertaining and pithy doses. Her fiction has brought her much acclaim, including
the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, multiple Nebula nominations, and two Hugo
Awards. While her short fiction runs the gauntlet in terms of style and settings, as a novelist she's
carved out a space for herself with the five volume Glamourist Histories--a Regency series with an
elevator pitch of "Jane Austen with magic." Last month, she switched gears with the release of Ghost
Talkers, a World War I alternate history in which teams of professional mediums, the "Spirit Corps,"
commune with soldiers who have died on the front lines, gathering specifics of troop movements to
pass along to military intelligence officers.
Schoen: I'm fascinated by how an author's background shapes her work and process, and as I
indicated in the introduction, your history with movement and voice invokes two of the three
modalities we use to understand the world, and now here you are pouring all of that into the visual
experience of reading words on a page (setting aside audio books for the moment). Do you find
yourself consciously focusing on these kinds of factors when you're writing or is it more automatic to
you, or something that I'm imagining in your work? Likewise, how much does the concept of
"performance" affect how you approach writing a scene?
Kowal: One of the things that carries over from puppetry to fiction, for me, is an emphasis on body
language. This is such an important non-verbal part of communication and yet it's often overlooked. It's
one of the reasons online communications can go so wrong, because we don't have the body language
to remove ambiguity. Was something sarcastic, or serious? Without that little smirk, or hearing the
tone of voice, it's often difficult to tell. So I find myself using physicality to remove ambiguity and
also, looking at the spoken language to see if there's a way I can restructure sentences so that they are
clearer. For instance, in puppetry we have the training phrase, "What did you say?" and the goal is to
change the way that is perceived by the audience through performance. It could be, "I can't hear you,"
or "I don't believe you," or "I didn't understand," or a whole host of other things, so I'll tweak the line
and the action to make it clear which area I'm intending. Part of the way I test this is through the
performative act of having someone else read it and asking them for their reader reaction. Readers are
my audience. Just as you do dress rehearsals in theater, you use beta readers in fiction. The goal is the
same for each: How does the story play?
Schoen: Let's follow up on that. Can you speak a bit about using beta- or first-readers to provide
you with feedback on your works-in-progress approach? What are the pros and cons of it for you, and
how do you find and audition such talent? It seems like such a brilliant and obvious thing to do, so why
aren't more authors doing it?
Kowal: Lots of authors use them, but not everyone is as public as I am about it. And it really
doesn't work for everyone, because everyone's brains are wired differently. I'm a ham. Without an
audience, I can't tell if the story is doing what I want it to do. The only time I've had the typical author
angst about my fiction was when I attempted to write a novel without beta readers. It was like
practicing in an empty room. Sure. You can tell some things, but at a certain point, you have to bring
an audience in. As for finding the talent. . . I train them. I tell them specifically the kind of feedback
that I'm looking for, which is focused on reader response, rather than writer suggestions. The criteria
are based on Orson Scott Card's "Wise Reader" approach, tweaked to be a mnemonic. I ask for:
Awesome (so I don't accidentally "fix" things), Bored, Confused, and Disbelief. I also give them a
video to watch. https://youtu.be/EgFE2W9qICo
Schoen: Your Glamourist Histories feature characters who are creative artists, albeit in a magical
medium. How much of this is an autobiographical metaphor of the trials and tribulations experienced
by women creating art in our modern world? Is Jane you, an idealized version, or someone entirely
separate from your own experiences and temperament?
Kowal: The underlying landscape hasn't changed that much, though the landscaping might make it
appear different. In the Regency, painting, dancing, music. . . these were all considered "womanly"
arts, and yet when you hired a professional, it was a man. Today, fashion, cooking, art. . . these are all
"womanly" arts, but the top designers are men, the chefs are men, the highest paid artists are men.
Heck-- puppetry, which is often denigrated as "playing with dolls," is dominated by men at the top end
of the industry. Jane definitely reflects my experiences and that of many, many women.
Schoen: Readers who know you from your novels associate you with Jane Austen and Regency
fiction. You've run with this kind of marketing by appearing at conventions in period clothing, even
handing out folding fans as promotional tchotchkes. What insight can you share as an author who has
"lived" her work to such an extent, and do you plan a similar approach and reinvention of yourself as
you begin promoting the new book?
Kowal: I come from a theater background. The idea of going to do a reading and not putting on a
show is alien to me. There are so many different ways people can get entertainment these days, that
asking someone to come out to a bookstore just to hear someone read seems. . . unreasonable. So, I put
on a costume. I have door prizes. For Ghost Talkers, I've made a replica of the Spirit Corps uniform
and have coded messages that people can try to solve for prizes. It's wicked fun. (Now--having said
that, I still love my Regency stuff and will go to any ball I'm invited to.) What I'm hoping is that people
will learn that what I deliver is an immersive experience and that it's tied to the world of the book.
Schoen: Switching gears a bit, I'd like to get your perspective on the ideas of "theme" and
"message" in novels. In my experience, most authors' books have themes to them and it's not
uncommon for the fictional vehicle to be used as a soapbox to present (or even preach) a particular
belief or perspective. Sometimes these themes and messages are deliberate and heavy-handed, but I've
seen firsthand that authors can also be the last person to realize they've done anything more than tell a
story and are stunned that readers find deeper meaning in their work. What's your experience with this,
both in terms of inclusion in your work, as well as intentionality and un-, and has this changed over the
course of your writing career?
Kowal: I usually have a question that I'm exploring, which I've belatedly realized is a theme. By
belatedly, I mean two weeks ago, when I was chatting with Elizabeth Bear who said, in paraphrased
fashion, that a theme was a question that was explored but left unanswered by a text, and a polemic
was a question that was answered. This is, I think, brilliant. It explains why some things come across as
heavy-handed and others are deeply thought-provoking.
Schoen: You attended East Carolina University, majoring in Art Education and minoring in
Theater. In addition to your career as a puppeteer, both performing and creating puppets, you've been
the art director for genre magazines like Shimmer and Weird Tales. How does that experience lead you
to become a writer? Did the desire to write emerge gradually in your life, or can you point to a
particular time and place where you realized that writing was your career goal? Was it something you
fell into or something that you responded to as more of a calling or personal destiny?
Kowal: I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything. In high school, I wrote, I did
puppetry, I did art, and theater, and music and dance and. . . In college I tried to come up with a career
path that would let me do everything I loved. Writing was one of those things. As far as it being a
career goal? No more so than any of the other things I love. What all of them boil down to is a desire to
connect to an audience. My goal, with all of my careers, is to get to a point where I can turn down the
gigs I don't want to do. Writing is just one of the gigs I want to do, but it's not the only one.
Schoen: You joined the cast of Writing Excuses in their sixth season, and the podcast is currently
in its eleventh. Along with hundreds of hours of writing advice, workshop retreats that began at your
family home in Tennessee and have expanded to weeks at sea on cruise ships, you've become a
"personality" on the podcast circuit of writers talking about writing, and the topics you've covered have
value for both novices and seasoned professionals wanting a fresh perspective. What do you feel is the
best advice you've handed down through this vehicle, and is there any advice you'd like to share but
haven't found a good fit for the podcast?
Kowal: In varying forms, all of our advice boils down to "trust yourself as a reader." That leads to
better writing. If you try to write something "dazzling" as opposed to something that you want to read,
you're working counter to your own instincts. Write something that you want to read.
Schoen: I had the pleasure of hearing you read from Ghost Talkers months ago at a convention and
was instantly captivated. In those few minutes it seemed that you totally capture the SF idea of taking
one idea or difference, applying it to the world, and letting it unwind and run where it will as you set a
very real, very human story into the resulting space. Is this just the first volume in a new series, and if
so do you intend to develop the characters of Ginger and Benjamin--as you did with the principal
characters in the Glamourist Histories--or focus more on aspects of the Spirit Corps and other practical
applications of their abilities?
Kowal: Currently, it's a standalone. I have two other books that I want to write in the universe, both
of which would keep Ginger as the point of view character. One is during the war and gets how the
Spirit Corps and warfare evolve. The other is post-war and looks at the pushback against Spiritualism
and the role of women. Whether or not I get to write those is up in the air and depends on how Ghost
Schoen: As an author you've demonstrated you're at home with both the short and the long form,
which isn't something we can all manage. What is it about your own process that you think allows you
to be comfortable and effective at such different lengths? Is this something you think can be taught, or
you either have the knack or you don't?
Kowal: I absolutely think it can be taught, with a caveat. It gets back to the idea of writing what
you enjoy reading. If you don't enjoy and read short fiction, you'll have a difficult time writing it.
Within that is the idea of audience expectations. People read novels and short fiction for different
reasons. Novel readers tend to want an immersive experience. Short fiction readers want a swift,
emotional gut punch. That doesn't mean that gut punches have to be all angsty or that they can't happen
in a novel, but it relates instead into understanding why an audience is reading a story. Once you
understand the goal in relation to an audience, the basic skills are the same.
Schoen: Last question: What's your plan going forward? You've proven your skills at many
different aspects of the field, matching art to stories, teaching via podcasts and workshops, paying it
forward and contributing to policy with years of service to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of
America, and writing award-winning fiction. Is there a goal that you're aiming for, something either
abstract or concrete, or are you focused more on the now, with the current contract or deadline as far
ahead as you want to look?
Kowal: It's the same goal I've always had. I want to be able to turn down the gigs I don't want to do
coupled with a desire to be challenged. I want to be better tomorrow, than I am today.