Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been writing their Liaden Universe® for almost thirty
years. Along with dozens of short stories, they've published a staggering number of novels in a
series that spans generations and continues to produce compelling characters and fascinating plot
twists. Their fans are legion; they are polite and articulate and passionate. The authors themselves
have been on the receiving end of many guest-of-honor slots at conventions and of a slew of
awards. Their series has survived into its third publisher now, and continues stronger than ever
with a vast cast that spans both time and space. The latest volume, The Gathering Edge, comes
out next month from Baen and marks the twentieth book in the series. This occasion seemed like
the perfect time to sit down with them and ask a few questions about how it began, how it's been
going, and what comes next.
Schoen: So, yes, let's talk about how this all started. The initial novel, Agent of Change, was
published in 1988. Was that the first hint of scouts and pilots and Liad, or was there something
before that book? And more importantly, as you look back, can you point to a specific event that
is the origin point for everything that followed? What is the inciting incident of the Liaden
Lee: Hmm. The origin of the Liaden Universe® is me. I was an FLK (Funny Looking Kid)
who couldn't talk very well and read a lot. I'd had imaginary friends for as long as I could
remember. Val Con, Miri, and the Green People were the culmination of that long history, but
they were also something new. The difference was that they weren't "friends." They didn't know
of my existence, and they didn't interact with me. Instead, I made up stories about them. In those
stories, Val Con yos'Phelium (that was his name from the start, and no, I don't know where it
came from; my guess is that I wanted something exotic-sounding; a named that clearly belonged
to someone who was Not From Around Here, "Here" being Baltimore, Maryland) was either a
spy or a scout. Miri Robertson was a mercenary soldier (girl soldiers weren't a Done Thing back
in 1966, when all this began). The Green People were aliens. Their function was to do
Inscrutable Things. I wasn't very good at this storytelling thing, back when, so, whenever I told
myself into a corner (a frequent occurrence), the Green People would come along, do Something
Inscrutable, and jump the story to another track so I could continue.
The Inciting Incident for the Liaden Universe® as it is practiced today was the day I gave
Steve a piece of paper with what became the first line of Agent of Change typed on it ("The man
who was not Terrence O'Grady had come quietly."), and said, "I think I have a novel."
Steve said, "I think you might have a series."
And then he asked me if I knew anything about the universe the story was set in, and I told
him everything I knew about Val Con and Miri, and the Green People, and the universe they
It took all night, so you see, I knew a lot. Enough, certainly, to get us started.
Miller: Mostly the origin was that restless urge to write. That, combined with the action-adventure thrust of much of the SF I enjoyed, pushed in the direction that we fell into through
Sharon's vision. The evening Sharon handed me the first sentence of what was to become Agent
of Change, that was the origin point for me.
Schoen: All writers have something unique to the way they work, something that defines
their "process." You've successfully collaborated on many, many books, chapbooks, and short
stories. Would you each take a moment to sum up your particular "process" and then explain how
you make them mesh? And more specifically, when you sit down to do a novel, who does what?
Lee: One of us will bring a story idea to the table. (This is literal: much of our planning,
discussing, and role playing is done over our kitchen table. We'll kick it around, try a bit of role-playing, and just see if it "takes." If it does, then the partner who brought the idea forward is what
we call the "traffic cop." That partner holds the tie-breaker vote should there be any difference of
vision while the story is being written. It has happened that the tie-breaker has been cast, but very
seldom. This is because we do role-play scenes, and also because we view characters as the
captains of their own destinies. If the story's vision stipulates that Character A will steal a
spaceship, and Character A flatly refuses to do so, then it's up to us to find a better way, in
keeping with that character's necessities. In general, the traffic cop also does much of the physical
writing--at least the typing!--of the first draft, while the other partner does specific scenes,
research, and support before taking over for the second draft.
Miller: About the "who does what when," the answer is yes. Which is to say, it depends.
Across several dozen novels the joint process has been that an idea comes to the table, gets
discussed, and the person who had that initial concept begins writing. The intent is to get a draft
down, and generally the first writer does the bulk of the first draft, in constant discussion (as in
pages delivered to the table for perusal at the end of the workday) with the other. The second
draft then goes to the second writer, and a final draft, in close discussion, follows that. In some
cases this amounts to a novel being a draft-and-a-half, and in some cases to as much as four
Schoen: One of the core concepts that ties all the Liaden stories and novels together is
melant'i, a term that describes one's status--social, familial, professional, and more--and which
carries with it a strict code of behavior for maintaining its balance. Every Liaden fan has the
phrase "Necessity exists" burned into their brains. Is this strictly a fictional device, or do you
see--or even pursue--parallels of it in your own lives? As writers, are you concerned about your
own melant'i and, for example, the need to achieve balance when a publisher's advance is late or
a print run is short?
Lee: The truth is that we all act from our various melant'is, instinctively. The difference in
the Liaden Universe® is that the concept is formalized and codified (in, yes, The Liaden Code of
Proper Conduct). Melant'i is described more than once in the Liaden books, usually by a Terran,
as the Hat Concept. Say, you're a nurse, a teacher, and my mom. Those are three hats you're
wearing, each specific to a range of tasks. In our society, these roles tend to have fuzzy edges. In
Liaden society, the roles are sharply delineated.
"Necessity," is, again, something that we all do, but which the Liadens have codified, until
the answer to, "Why did you burn the shopping center down, my son?" can reasonably be,
"Necessity." Typically, then, a fuller answer is required but the statement that a particular action
was necessary immediately signals the seriousness of the action.
"Balance" has to do with the Liaden philosophy of life. In a perfect universe, all things are in
balance. Society is imperfect, however; it is the duty of each person to live a balanced life. If you
have wronged a neighbor, you must make reparation. This may be the work of years, and because
of that, each adult Liaden carries a debt book, in which she records every Balance owed, and
every Balance owing.
Miller: I think melant'i has far more to it--as Balance does--than simple revenge, which is,
alas, a mistake Terrans make in our books. A lot of it is being aware of your place, literally and
figuratively, within the shifting situations of your life. I've used the example of a school bus
driver who also is an EMT coming across a car accident while driving the school bus with
students aboard. In some states that EMT can't get off the bus to help at an accident--by rule.
Yet the EMT necessity may be to save a life even if it means putting a kid in charge of the bus. If
that driver also happens to be a member of the PTA and a cousin to someone in the vehicle, all of
those are part of the melant'i of the situation. Balance, too, may require doing either a good deed
or a "bad deed" surreptitiously to match benefits previously received or denied. It is kind of
complicated. . .
Schoen: The twentieth novel in the Liaden series comes out next month (and there's an
excerpt from it elsewhere in this issue). In the earlier books you mainly danced back and forth
between two generations of characters. More recently, characters from a third generations have
begun cropping up, promoted to protagonists in their own right. How much of this was in your
heads when Agent of Change first appeared back in 1988? Did you already have an inkling when
you penned Val Con yos'Phelium that nearly thirty years later there'd be a Padi yos'Galan, or has
this latest generation simply flowed from the older characters' Necessity?
Lee: Actually, we, or I, knew about Padi very early on in the process. She makes an
appearance in a couple of early drafts/word doodles, as a child. We didn't know who Padi would
be, because she's still working that out, but the fact of her existence--yes.
We knew about Padi, by the way, because we knew that Shan had been contract-married at a
very early age. And we knew that because we knew there was a fair amount of tension between
Er Thom yos'Galan, Shan's father, and Shan, because Er Thom was interested in following the
Liaden Code of Proper Conduct, and Shan, um, embraced his Terran side and was specifically
We didn't know why Er Thom was so insistent on instilling propriety in his children until
See, you just move in from the general to the specific, and you can learn all kinds of
As to the appearance of the third generation. . . The Liaden Universe® is not static. We are
not telling the same story every time; nor are our characters frozen in time. The characters are
moving through their lives, growing, changing, having children, losing friends, learning--just
like in Real Life. Given all that, it makes sense that there will be a third generation, and that they
will grow up and begin having their own adventures, even as their parents, and grandparents,
continue on with the adventure of their own lives.
Miller: Padi herself we didn't know, but we knew there'd be far more characters after the
initial seven novels were done, and we weren't resisting going in that direction. In that regard,
yes, as the stories grew characters and the characters grew stories the universe achieved a kind of
momentum resulting in Padi's generation.
Schoen: Many of your books fall into the chocolate/peanut butter phenomenon, by which I
mean that you've achieved an equilibrium between two genres. Depending on the reader, the
Liaden series can be seen as either romantic science fiction or science fiction romances. You've
garnered awards from both genres and I assume you're deliberately writing to appeal to both
audiences, cornering the sub-genre before there was even a name for it. Have you found any
specific challenges to maintaining that delicate balance, book after book?
Lee: Errrr. No. First and foremost, I do not write For You (universal "You"). I write For Me
(specific "Me"). I think this is true of most authors, simply because of the time involved in
writing a book. If I'm going to spend nine months to a year inside of a particular plot and/or
character's head, it's going to be someplace and/or someone I enjoy spending time with.
Secondly, you need to remember the timeline. Agent of Change was written in 1984,
published in 1988. Before that time, we had science fiction/fantasy adventure, which was mostly
written by and for boys. We had nurse books, which were mostly written by and for girls.
And we had girls--like, oh, me--who read both: science fiction for the action, adventure,
and sense of wonder; nurse books for the connections that were made between people, and, yes,
Those girls grew up imagining themselves the heroes of a scifi adventure, and wanting the
extra depth of emotional connection.
One of the things Steve and I agreed on emphatically was that the Liaden Universe® would
be a place where people would need people; where partnerships would be successful; where
families and emotional connection would be important.
There was no Science Fiction Romance, or Romantic Science Fiction, as genres, when we
were putting the Liaden Universe® together. Even the Pern books, which now would fall into
those genres, had to make it as science fiction (or, as some insist, fantasy). Once that happened,
then they, as the Liaden books, drew in more girl readers. But, in essence, we were among the
vanguard of writers who formed the foundation of the later genres of SFR/RSF.
Miller: I suspect the equilibrium isn't as simple or as static as the question implies, nor as
delicate to maintain, since the question limits the reader's understanding of what they're reading
to quick-and-dirty bookstore or reviewer labeling, and our goals to meeting those supposed
Some of our readers aren't all that familiar with science fiction romance--they've been
with us since our books were called space opera or action adventure, or as a famous editor
described the first of them, as "John LeCarré in Space."
In fact, we make no effort to freight the novels, or any of the fifty or so short stories in the
universe for that matter, with so much of this and so much of that to aim for any particular sub-segment of readers besides "Lee and Miller" or Liaden Universe® readers. The stories and
characters determine the action, not the anticipated habits of potential readers. One of our editors
once (in all seriousness!) told us that we needed to be concerned about what housewives in Iowa
would think of our characters and their relationships. I don't think we've gone there.
Schoen: Can we talk for a moment about the non-human characters in the Liaden
Universe®? You started with Turtles--and let me just take a moment to speak for many of your
fans and readers when I say it's long past time that you gave us more Turtles!--moved on to the
arcane, sapient-but-not-quite-as-we-know-it, possibly precognitive, certainly manipulative-but-no-one-seems-to-have-a-problem-with-that-so-nevermind Tree, and more recently the sentient
and presumably proto-sapient Norbears. These non-human characters go largely unexplained
except as opportunities for character development and/or as plot devices. Despite this, they're
hugely popular. Care to comment on the overall notion or any of them in particular? And, on a
related note, can we use this interview to start a rumor about a possible spin-off book that's all
Lee: All Turtles. . . I don't see how to do it. You'd need a naive narrator in order to make any
all-Turtle story accessible to non-Turtle readers; the problem then being finding an accessible
naive voice which is also long-lived enough to even see a Turtle story. It's a puzzle.
I think that some characters just Do Better as bit players; and I think the Turtles are one of
For the other non-human intelligences. . . I wonder what sort of explanation would be
needed? They exist in the universe--remembering again that, when I was first reading science
fiction non-human aliens were thick on the ground, with no explanation for their presence, other
than, "Here's my buddy Torve. He's a Trog." Or, "My greatest adversary, and the being closest to
me of all beings, is Cynbe ru Taren, the Intellect Master of the Garden of War." Or even, "This is
Nessa, Speaker to Animals. He's a Pierson's Puppeteer, despised by all others of his race,
because, well, he speaks to animals. By which, of course, I mean humans."
Miller: First, Turtles are hard. And second, an all Turtle book (as in novel) is beyond us at
this time and such a rumor would be irresponsible. Next, we both grew up with non-human
characters in Norton, Heinlein, and as far back as the Eleanor Cameron books I started with.
More than that--well, we get to play, don't we?
Schoen: Let's step back and look at your experiences prior to becoming writers. Even
authors--or perhaps especially authors--have a back story. What aspects of your personal
histories, your education, your past employment, your childhood upbringings and traumas are
responsible for allowing you to create your universe? What were you drawing on when you
created your pilots and scouts? Are the characters of Er Thom and Daav a reflection of or an
homage to people who shaped your lives?
Lee: I wanted to live in a universe where honor had meaning, and in which the rules, once
known, were understandable. Reflections of specific people. . . well, there must be reflections,
mustn't there? But naming specific sources for particular characters--that's a dangerous game
that I'd rather not play.
Miller: Never been a pilot, did some journalism. Read. Read some more. Read between
classes, read during classes at all ages of education. Started writing fiction and poetry in high
school, started selling to small mags in college. I've worked construction, in libraries, in retail off
and on and off and on--card and gift stores, video store, Williams-Sonoma, managed a computer
store. Also was a reporter and editor, and even a newspaper owner. Not a soldier, not (too often)
About Daav and Er Thom's reflecting real life? In short, no. We have managed from time to
time to have some of our characters deliver the bon mots one or another of our friends have
managed to deliver in real life, but I'd say our Scouts were, in effect, an extension of the scouts
and pioneers we grew up with as readers through Norton, Heinlein, and even Doc Smith.
Schoen: As part of a speech given last year, Sharon outed herself as a "seat-of-the-pants,
intuitive writer." This choice is often seen as one end of a spectrum, with "outliner" at the other. I
can see taking a pantser approach to a one-shot novel, but how do you make this writing mode
work when you're writing the twentieth book in a series, with contracts for several more already
signed. How do you pants that? How do you not have an outline, or a long-range plan, or a clear
idea of where you're going and who's going to be where, especially considering the expanding
family of characters that all need to be accounted for?
Lee: A parable, if I may. I have a friend who is deathly allergic to chocolate. That's not
hyberpole, that "deathly;" it's factual. He was explaining to a mutual acquaintance that indeed,
no, he couldn't eat chocolate, not even a little bit. And the mutual acquaintance, clearly skeptical,
asked, "But, don't you miss it?"
My friend paused for a moment, took a breath and said, with really commendable calm:
"Which part of it would I miss? The part where I can't breathe, or the part where I black out and
have to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance?"
Or--how could you possibly begin to outline such a complex and entwined set of narrative
lines? The only way to go is by gut feeling, and by listening very closely to what each character
Miller: Was Jack London a pantser? Or Jules Verne? Or were they left-handed? To begin
with, I'm annoyed by the label pantser, it smacks of college creative writing class jargon.
At this point in our collaboration we're still doing what we did at the start: talking and
writing the story as it comes. Yes, sometimes that means reworking it multiple times, and yes,
sometimes it means a lot of rereading.
Not having an outline doesn't mean the story idea is nonexistent, and often an outline is
so constraining as to be a detriment. I'm afraid we know a considerable number of writers who
hand over an outline or synopsis to an editor knowing full-well that the first time the protagonist
faces a test the whole outline will come crumbling down.
Schoen: In your relentless efforts to keep your fans happy, you've explored and embraced
alternative publishing possibilities, from starting your own in-house press to release chapbooks
of both new and reprinted stories between novels, and being among the first SF authors to
experiment with ebook format long before the days of Kindle, to publishing novels using a
crowdsourcing model well before anyone had heard of Kickstarter. The latest incarnation of your
nontraditional approach to publishing is your Splinter Universe. Can you sum up what this is,
why you're doing it, and what you hope it will accomplish?
Miller: Splinter Universe (splinteruniverse.com) happened and is still evolving because
people want to know what we're doing and because sometimes there's a gap between something
being done and publication. Fans and readers can wander through without pressure while they're
waiting for the next big project.
We wanted to share some of the other (as in non-Liaden) things we've done. It gives us a
place to show (if not show off!) some of our early stories, some of our other writing, and some of
the out-takes from things that have been published that might interest our readers. We've also
recently added a few recordings and a proto-podcast that we hope to expand as time and energy
permit. We put links to Paypal for those who want to show appreciation, and to that extent it is,
as you point out, an extension of our "let's just do this" approach to reaching readers.
Schoen: Regular readers of my interviews here at IGMS know that I always ask when you
realized you wanted to be an author. And more, can either or both of you point to a specific event
in your lives, a moment when everything changed for you in this regard?
Lee: I wrote my first book when I was in first grade. It was called, "How the Rhinoceros Got
His Skin." My father found me copying it out from my Golden Book edition into a composition
book, and asked me what I was doing. I said that I was writing a book. My father pointed out,
quite rightly, that Rudyard Kipling appeared to have already written that book; but I had given
the matter some thought, and had a plan.
My plan was that, when I had my clean copy, I would put my name on it, while placing Mr.
Kipling's effort under my bed where no one would ever find it.
My father suggested that I would be better served by paying attention during arithmetic
Anyhow, the desire to be a writer has apparently been with me for a pretty long time.
Miller: I can't recall any time after my "Going to be a fireman" days of elementary school
when I didn't want and expect to be a writer. The "author" part was a redefinition, I suppose, of
the generic, "I'm going to make my living with my writing." The biggest change for me may have
been in 1969 when I was hired on as a writer and editor at the student newspaper at UMBC--I'd
just turned 19 and was drawing a weekly paycheck for my work. Before that I'd been getting
published in odd fanzines and the like, paid in copies and books, but once I was getting paid-in-cash I knew I'd never give it up entirely.
Early in my career I was a traveling poet at the same time I was writing book, movie, theater,
and music reviews as well as cop log and pick-up stories for community newspapers. And I was
sending fiction out to whatever paying markets would have my work. At the time there were
markets offering ¼ cent a word, or $5 a story, $1 a poem. While I came close to giving up fiction
a couple times, being a writer was always there.
Schoen: At this point, with so many vibrant characters, do you find yourselves having to pick
and choose whose story you're going to tell? There's only so much time, only so many books that
you're going to get to write, and the Liaden Universe® just keeps expanding. I know fans have
their favorites and surely badger you for missing stories about Anne Davis before she met Er
Thom, or the life and times of Cheever McFarland, or even more stories about the latest
happenings on Vandar when Miri and Val Con aren't visiting. How do you decide where to make
Lee: We write the stories that are persistent; that have heart; that speak to us the loudest. I'm
not interested in writing about Vandar at the moment, so there's an easy cut. The concept of
writing a novel about the first years on Liad after the Migration presently bores me very nearly to
tears, so--not going there. On the other hand, I'd be interested in writing a novel that, say,
followed a Healer; or someone who has decided to become a professional Luck; or--well, I can't
tell you that one, because you haven't read Neogenesis, but it's a good 'un.
Miller: There's always the choice of whose story you're going to tell, isn't there? Even with
a blank slate, that's the question. With characters and storylines in motion we often have to
choose which story to focus on and then see if the other characters can become a second or third
line in the book or if their story needs to be told glancingly in one book and full on in another.
Sometimes we have to decide that a story needs to be told in detail but that it won't fit into the
novel at hand, and it may become a short story or novelette to be released individually. The cut,
as it were, comes from pushing ahead with the stream with the most focus for us.
Schoen: On a related note, you've taken a very strong stand opposing fan fiction involving
your intellectual property. It's your universe, and you have that right. But as there are huge swaths
that you conceivably will never get to, can you imagine a day when you might pull back a bit and
mark off some characters, a planet, or some such and allow fans to have at it? If not while you're
both alive then perhaps posthumously? Or if not fan fiction, does the success of the Liaden
Universe® include the possibility of licensing other authors to carry on?
Lee: No, I can't imagine such a day when I would allow fan fiction of the Liaden Universe®.
It actually makes me feel ill to think about it.
Miller: I think there's a lot to the question. First, I guess the issue is that we conceivably may
get to any particular swath, and in fact may have a particular swath covered in discussion or in a
script already written and not yet published. We're a book and a number of short stories ahead of
the readers, you know. The assumption that because it hasn't been seen means it doesn't
exist--or been planned for--is not a good assumption.
By the way, we might have been more forgiving of the idea of Liaden fan fiction if the
very first example we saw hadn't been a gruesome mind-control rape fantasy supposedly
perpetrated by one of the best-loved characters in the series. The next was an unauthorized
gaming sequence. So, no, thanks, don't jostle our elbows without permission.
As for letting other professionals work in the universe? Yes, we're considering how that
might be done while balancing the IP rights of all concerned. Perhaps the start would be an
anthology aimed at a particular period; we're still looking.
Schoen: You've had thirty years with this series, and it's been a rollicking lot of fun. But is
that all it's been, or is there some message that you've been slipping into the books and stories as
well? If the Liaden Universe® contains a soapbox, what's the essential idea you're pitching to the
crowd over and above fantastic storytelling?
Lee: People are people, and all people are equal. Not the same, but equal. All people deserve
respect, no matter their shape, their culture, who or how they love. And, also, we are none of us
in this all alone; we need each other, and not only because many hands make light work.
Miller: Sure, there are messages. From the start we've been pitching the idea that there is
right and wrong and that individuals must actively pursue right over wrong. We've also pitched
the utility of clear-eyed partnership, and the idea that win-win happens. Pay attention to
contracts. And what should one always do?
Lee: Errrr? Trust Centauri?
Schoen: To close, I'm hoping you can say a few words about what's coming next. I've already
noted you have several more Liaden books under contract with Baen. Can you say a word or two
about what we can expect in them? Moreover, do you have a specific end in mind for the series,
or do you intend to just keep on going until the stars go out? This is also where I want to trap you
into saying you are not explicitly denying the rumors of a Turtle book. So, do you have any plans
for either spin-off book/series or otherwise unrelated writing projects in the foreseeable future?
You know, with, say, Turtles?
Miller: We have contracts right now for five Liaden books and ideas for fifty. The next book
(that is, the one beyond The Gathering Edge) has been turned in and David Mattingly's already
done the cover art for it--there's a scan of it here: http://sharonleewriter.com/2017/03/today-in-the-liaden-universe/neogenesis-cover-art-scan/ --David sent us print number 1.
Right now we're both looking ahead two books, Sharon running lead on what must be
called the main line and me on what have been characterized as the Mask Books. That is, we're
masking what they might be about until we're ready to let Amazon know they exist.
And Turtles? More Turtles? If we told you, it'd be a spoiler, wouldn't it?