Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Laura Anne Gilman
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Laura Anne Gilman's latest novel is The Cold Eye, the second book in her Devil's West series
(an excerpt appears elsewhere in this issue), a fantasy set clearly in the Old West. Her Vineart
War trilogy (the first volume of which brought her a Nebula nomination for Best Novel) was
high fantasy. And her Cosa Nostradamus have produced three separate urban fantasy series.
Under the name Anna Leonard she's written paranormal romance, and as L. A. Kornetsky she's
released a series of mysteries. Before any of that there were assorted media tie-in works
(Quantum Leap, Buffy, Poltergeist), as well as years spent as an editor. Most of that happened in
New York, but for the last few years she's made her home in Seattle, Washington.
Schoen: You're an author who's also been a professional editor, so let's start with the obvious
"chicken vs. egg" question. Which skill set comes first for you--are you a writer who edits as she
goes or an editor who also gets to write? Or do you feel this is a false dichotomy to begin with
and it's meaningless to try and tease these abilities apart? And, as a follow-up question, as a past
editor, what's your experience as a writer when a given book's editorial letter arrives?
Gilman: I think they're separate but related skills, and certainly they feed and grow off each
other. The more I edit, the better a writer I become, and the more I write, the more capable an
editor I learn to be (both from the writing and from the being-edited).
That said, I was a storyteller first. Editing was a skill I didn't learn until I was older, and had
acquired the ability to take myself out of the story telling, to look at the finished product
somewhat more dispassionately.
It does require a slight firewall in the brain, though. You can't be editing when you're
writing, and when you're editing, you need to remember that it's not your book, that how you
might do it isn't relevant. That firewall has to become muscle memory; you can't be constantly
thinking, "Okay, now time to do this." It's more *boom* the firewall comes down and you're
only doing one thing.
As for the editorial letter . . . I've developed a very specific way of handling revision letters,
but I suspect that's more to do with my delicate-snowflake easily-melted writer's ego than having
been an editor. What being an editor did teach me, though, was how to read the letter, to see it as
an offering from a partner, not something to be fought against.
Well, not much fought about, as I hear my past editors rolling their eyes at me . . .
Schoen: As noted, you write all flavors of fantasy, and you do them well. Less common
among your fiction are science fiction works (your novella Dragon Virus being a clear
exception). Why do you suppose that is? Do the tropes of SF just not sing to you, or is the pull of
fantasy just so much stronger that you feel no urge to set magic aside and embrace the
technology, space, and aliens that science fiction offers?
Gilman: I love SF. It's how I got into the field in the first place. And I'm very much
interested in actual science and tech (although less so aliens . . . humans are weird enough for me
to deal with). That said, there was a move, about the time I was developing as a new writer, for
SF to be very technical, or shade heavy into cyberpunk. And neither style really suited the
storytelling I needed to do, the social worldbuilding and interpersonal contacts I wanted to dig
into. So, I slipped sideways into fantasy, but dragged a lot of my science in with me. The Cosa
Nostradamus magic is based on electricity and biochemistry, and the Vineart War trilogy is
entirely sourced from agricultural studies. Even the Devil's West books have a hard core of
science in the worldbuilding--from geology to paleontology.
But the traditional hardware of SF, not so much.
Yet, anyway. Like Dragon Virus, when a story comes along that needs an SFnal structure,
that's what it will get.
Schoen: The past few years has seen a surge in fantasy novels set in the American west. In
addition to your own Devil's West series, I'm thinking of books like Elizabeth Bear's Karen
Memory and Arianne 'Tex' Thompson's Children of the Drought series. Do you think there's a
special allure to playing with the tropes and traditions of western fiction and meshing it with the
fantastic, or is it more an appeal to those readers who just can't bear yet another vampire novel or
medieval fantasy set in a thinly disguised European nation? Or are you part of a growing
conspiracy of authors holding regular meetings to redefine fantasy?
Gilman: I told you not to mention those meetings . . .
I was never a particular fan of the Western as a genre -- possibly because I knew too much
actual history of the time period? Such an incredibly complex time, politically and socially,
scraped down to tropes. But the visuals of the genre, those I loved. The wide open spaces, the
gritty, dusty, dirty texture of it all.
I didn't even consider, at first, that these were 'weird west.' It was an American fantasy, with
maybe a smidge of magical realism. That made the sales department blanch, though. *laugh* For
me, the Devil's West grew out of a growing need to discuss and dissect what it meant (means) to
be North American, both native-born and immigrant. To push at what we mean when we talk
about a frontier, which really is such a strange concept--what's one person's frontier is another
person's home, after all, and after a generation that frontier becomes the settlers' home,
too--their children will never have known anything else. So how then do we define ourselves,
and how do we interact with that definition? What impact did that have on our choices,
historically? The magical element was my 'what if' entry point, how I'd force my characters to
confront what and who they were (and what and who they would choose to become).
And, ya know, to see if I could write a sweeping, epic story of change by focusing on two
lives, rather than on the more traditional Massive Cast of Characters.
As an aside, when I started writing these books, those themes were more along the lines of,
"I'm wondering this for myself, and maybe some other people who might be interested." It's
more than a little disturbing to see so many of the themes being played out in politics today.
Schoen: Part of the appeal of Silver on the Road and now The Cold Eye is following Isobel's
coming of age story. Everyone loves a good Bildungsroman, but in the case of this series you've
liberally distributed secondary characters that threaten to steal the show. (I'm thinking in
particular of the Devil himself and Gabriel, but I for one would welcome a book that's all about
magicians and folks like Jack.) Is that an easy balancing act for you, keeping the focus on your
protagonist's vector and the changes you're putting her through, or do you find yourself wanting
to allow some of these other colorful creations to have fictional lives that do more than just serve
Gilman: Well, first of all, these books were always Isobel and Gabriel's story. One thread is
coming-of-age, when you think you are ready but you're woefully not, and the other thread is
coming of maturity, when you know you don't have the answers, and have to come to terms with
the mistakes you've made. They're starting in different places, and traveling along the same road
for a while, hopefully learning from each other some of what they'll need to survive.
As to the secondary characters . . . I've never thought of them as merely serving Isobel's arc.
They intersect with her arc, at the time we meet them, but they were coming from somewhere
and they're going somewhere, before and after. At least one character--the Territory marshal in
The Cold Eye--has a particularly fascinating story I'm hoping to tell at some point.
But the Devil . . . I'm not sure his story will ever get told. I know some of it, but I've always
felt that laying out too much wouldn't serve the greater story. He simply is, and the acceptance of
that is integral to the Territory.
Schoen: Let's talk about your Cosa Nostradamus universe. You started with a simple
premise: a magic system based on electricity. Unlike most urban fantasy works, you're playing
with a device here that's more commonly seen in science fiction--take one thing, change it, and
then show us the world that results. Was this intentional on your part as a way of setting these
books apart from other urban fantasies, or is the novelty a happy accident that was part of some
larger goal you were pursuing?
Gilman: As I mentioned above, I like having a very solid and logical grounding for my magic
systems. "Because it works" frustrated me as a reader--I couldn't imagine ever writing from that.
So when I needed to find a way to create a sub-section of people who could work magic, I turned
to science. Human bodies are electrical meat machines, so why not consider other ways to
channel that energy, and create what we, in shorthand, would call 'magic?' Although in the Cosa
Nostradamus, they rarely call it that: it's a skill-set, or Talent, and they're aware, for the most
part, that it's less in their brains than their insulation . . .
Schoen: Turning now to your Vineart War books, your middle-grade Grail Quest trilogy
notwithstanding, I don't normally think of you as someone who writes high fantasy. Clearly, you
have a Nebula nomination that shows how wrong I am, but I'm wondering if the type of fantasy
here is less important than the opportunity to write about another area of specialization for you:
wine! It's the background in viticulture that really sets these books apart. Any comments you'd
like to share here, because I can't believe this was simply a way to justify visits to wineries to
your tax accountant.
Gilman: The impetus for the books was, in fact, trying to figure out how to make going to a
food and wine expo into a tax deduction. That much is true. But the story itself rose out of my
desire to actually use the 'farmboy hero' trope, and keep him a farmboy, effectively. Or at least,
an agricultural figure. I wanted to see if I could write high fantasy that had no armies, no
generals, no sweeping battles, etc.
Apparently, yes, I could. And while some people had issues with how the trilogy ended, I
treasure the email from my editor who said, paraphrasing, "You ended this book the only way it
could end, and it makes perfect logical sense for it to end that way."
Schoen: So from the mythos of the Old West to electricity to winemaking, there's a clear
pattern in your work of taking something different, something fresh, and using it as the kernel to
build new universes around. This is more than just having a new magic system for each series,
more than just the mechanics of how things work. Each of these works is unique unto itself, and
produces like-feeling stories. Don't get me wrong, I love that you're doing this, but it brings up
the question of whether your readers who adore one universe will follow you to another. Are fans
of Isobel also fans of Wren? Do readers who thrill to the actions of those who are Talent respond
similarly to those who are Vineart? Or are you reinventing yourself with each series?
Gilman: I seem to be fortunate in that many of my readers do follow me. It's a mark of trust,
and I work very hard to be worthy of it. Which sounds pretentious, but I really do feel like
they've entrusted me with something precious, and I have to strive to repay it with every new
And sometimes I get the email that says, "Why won't you do more of X? I like X better!"
And I have to tell them that I stopped writing X because that story was done. If another story
arises, then I'll tell it, but often the door is closed and it doesn't open again.
And yes, I'm definitely reinventing myself. Or rediscovering, anyway. I change every ten
years or so, sometimes significantly from where I'd started. It makes perfect sense that the stories
I'm telling will shift, too.
Schoen: Most of your writing life has been spent in New York. Now you're out in Seattle.
The distance between these two cities is more than just the span of the continent. You can't get a
real bagel locally, but ironically you can get the best lox around. How has all of this affected your
process as a writer? Or does location matter for you once you've fired up the laptop and put your
backside into a chair?
Gilman: It hasn't affected my process at all. I'm a get-up-in-the-morning, ass-in-chair writer,
and all I need for that, yeah, is the laptop and some coffee and somewhere to sit. White noise of
traffic preferred (I'm a city girl) but I can adapt. A lot else about my life has changed because I
shifted coasts, but the writing process is one thing that's remained stable.
Schoen: I'm always fascinated by when authors realized they wanted to write. Can you put
your finger on a specific time or event in your life where it became clear to you than this was it,
you wanted a life of words?
Gilman: Not really? My parents tell me I wrote my first story (technically, having a
beginning, a middle, and an ending) when I was still in kindergarten, and the teacher wanted to
have me tested (for what, I'm not quite sure) but my parents were just, "No, she's going to be a
writer, it's okay." To be fair, my mom is a writer and I had a great-uncle who was a playwright,
and an uncle who was an editor, so they recognized the signs early on. I'm not going to say they
encouraged me (they knew what a difficult life it can be), but they also knew that if the writing-urge was real, it was going to come out one way or another.
Schoen: We can't end without my asking you what happens next. Presumably you have at
least one more volume to go with the Devil's West, but then what? Any hints as to upcoming
books that you've contracted for or have brewing in the back of your mind? Do you see yourself
returning to any previous universes or forging new ones? And likewise, do you have plans for
work from any of your alter egos?
Gilman: The next book (currently with my editor) is the third Devil's West novel, wherein I
do terrible things to everyone. After that, there's a stand-alone novel, also historical American
fantasy, and after that, well . . . who knows?
A lot can change, in a year.