Elizabeth Bear: The Terribleminds Interview

Let’s be upfront, here. Elizabeth Bear’s bibliography is such a long read you don’t know if it will ever end — it goes on for days, like an eternally unfurling scroll. But there is, of course, a reason for that — she’s hella-talented and even better, multi-faceted when it comes to genre. “E-Bear” — which is the nickname I call her when she’s nowhere near me because the last time I called her that she hit me in the face with a hot pan — kindly offered to strap herself into the whirring psychotropic machine that is the terribleminds interview process. Thank her for coming by. Check out her website — elizabethbear.com — and follower her on Twitter (@matociquala).

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

It was on a Tuesday afternoon that Rudolfo finally exploded. But it wasn’t Tuesday itself that made him explode, or that somebody had used up the last of the creamer and he had to drink his coffee burnt and black, or having been up all night with a colicky baby. No, it was his eczema, which had started flaring up again and was driving him mad, inch by itching inch. He fought the urge to explode for a good long time, using calming breaths and meditation techniques, but eventually it all became too much for him.

He sat down on the office floor and put his fingers in his ears. His colleagues stepped back. One of them nearly called a manager, but first had to run down to Accounting with some paperwork, and by then it was all over.

Four minutes and six seconds later, the top of Rudolfo’s head blew off. There was a column of smoke and a good deal of noise, but no fire.

Human Resources showed up about half an hour later to collect the corpse for recycling.

It’s always the little things.

Why do you tell stories?

Compulsion. To justify my existence. To maybe let somebody else know they’re not as alone in the universe as they seem.

You’re a veteran penmonkey, as anybody who’s seen a list of your credits knows. Pick a favorite tale out of your venerable cabinet of stories and tell us why you wrote it.

Hah! Veteran penmonkey in output, maybe, but not in years. My first novel was published in 2005, after all. I’m still a wet-behind-the-ears novice, in a lot of ways.

But… okay. I think my best story so far is “Sonny Liston Takes The Fall,” which is part of my Promethean Age continuity, where very subtle and treacherous magic infests the real world and goes largely unnoticed. It’s about sacrifice and savagery and bloodsports, and the Corn King, and martyrdom, and how as a society we demonize people who fall on the wrong side of the race line, the class line, the political line. Sonny Liston was a boxer, the heavyweight champion of the world–and sort of the Mike Tyson of his day. But he wasn’t a boogeyman and he wasn’t a hero; he was a human being, made up of the usual assemblage of heroic and monstrous traits that comprise us all. And he helped change the world.

Now you’ve got to talk about one of my favorites — “Shoggoths In Bloom.” Where did that come from? It’s hard to bring anything inventive to Lovecraft, I think, and you not only threw me for a loop but also managed to bring in issues of prejudice and slavery. Why did you write it?

(“Shoggoths in Bloom“)

My friend and fellow writer Amanda Downum is *also* a jewelrymaker. Several years ago in Wisconsin, she presented me with a lampwork bracelet named “Shoggoths in Bloom.” And I was like, “I could write a story with that title.”

I grew up on Lovecraft. And there are things about his work that I still love — its existential bleakness, its sense of horror arising from the fact that the universe actually doesn’t give a good goddamned about us, humanity. I think he tackles that with a tremendous honesty.

But I think it’s impossible to engage with his work without engaging with its problematic aspects, which include racial determinism and prejudice and some class issues that are just as revolting.

So “Shoggoths” is my response to some of the unquestioned stuff in Lovecraft that I suspect he might have eventually interrogated a little more thoroughly himself, if he’d lived long enough to gain some perspective on his own unthinking prejudices. I may be giving him too much benefit of the doubt there, but I think of–for example–the contrast between the conventional sexism in early James White and what he was writing at the end of his life, and I want to at least remain open to the possibility that Lovecraft could have benefited from the mallet of perspective, eventually.

You write across many genres. Any advice for genre writers?

Stick to one, if you can. ;-)

At least to start with: it’s easier to build a career that way. I think I’ve confused a lot of people, and if I’d kept writing near-future cyberpunk adventures indefinitely, my sales numbers would probably be a hell of a lot better now.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t have the critical recognition I’ve garnered, so…

What would you say is wrong with modern genre fiction?

Absolutely fucking nothing. I think the field is richer and more inventive than it’s ever been; we have a diverse cohort of skilled and subtle writers coming up; and SFF has entered the mainstream in a big way. I keep telling people that this is the Rainbow Age of science fiction, and by god there is some *brilliant* work being done, building on the shoulders of the golden age and the silver age and the new wave and the cyberpunks and the urban fantasists. The spiritual children of Roger Zelazny and Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ and Fritz Leiber are kicking *ass* all over the place, quite frankly.

I think, critically speaking, we have a bunch of issues, though. We waste an awful lot of time pissing circles around subgenres and attempting to assert the moral superiority of one sort of SFF over another, and that’s a very human but utterly ridiculous activity.

I do think that one thing we’re missing is some recognition for the necessity of gateway science fiction. We lavish a lot of critical attention on books that are extremely dense and challenging — as impenetrable to somebody coming in to the genre as a new reader as improv jazz would be to an easy listening radio fan. This is not to say that the genre doesn’t *need* books like BRASIL or THE QUANTUM THIEF or THE COLOR OF DISTANCE or BLINDSIGHT, because of course we do. That’s the absolute cutting edge of the genre, the idea-and-eyeball-kicks coming fast and hard and unrelenting.

But we *also* need books that can train a reader in the skills necessary to follow THE QUANTUM THIEF. That’s one thing I’m enjoying about, for example, Robert Charles Wilson’s recent work. My favorite book of his is still BIOS, which is slim and savage and unrelentingly SFnal… but I think JULIAN COMSTOCK can appeal to and educate a wider readership, bring them into the fold as it were. And it’s still a damned fine novel.

I think Nalo Hopkinson is another excellent example of a crossover artist. Her work can be read as literary fiction, but the genre edge is there, and it’s handled in a way that opens doors for readers. I think THE SALT ROADS is one of the best SFF novels of the young century, and it has wide crossover appeal.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

“Tell the truth.” But tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson advised. Nobody likes to be preached to.

You’ve dispensed some writing advice. Now I have to ask: got any publishing advice for new writers?

Right desk. Right day. Right story. Write better.

Also: the only thing about publishing that you can control is the quality of your output. So make it good. *g*

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

It’s the best job in the world. I get paid to tell people entertaining lies. Unfortunately, I don’t get paid very much, and the checks show up irregularly.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Favorite word: “sesquipedalian.” Runner up: “floccinaucinihilipilificatrix.” Favorite oath of displeasure is probably “mother pusbucket.” Which isn’t technically a curse word, but it feels very satisfying to say. [ed. -- my favorite word is *also* "sesquipedalian." -- cdw]

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Good Scotch, preferably an Islay. Caol Ile is nice. Lagavulin. Mmm, Scotch.

My favorite cocktail is a Manhattan variant with Amara subbed in for vermouth, and orange bitters. It’s called a “Manhattanhenge,” and as far as I know was invented at peche, a wonderful quirky bar in Austin.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

This year, the book I am selling to everybody is Caitlin R. Kiernan’s THE DROWNING GIRL: A MEMOIR, which I read an ARC of and which will be out early next year. It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, and also a masterpiece.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

Canning and pickling. Also, I can handle a rifle and a bow.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

Sushi omakase with a really good chef. There’s something very awesome about sitting back, drinking sake, and watching somebody create art with food all on his or her own inspiration.

Of course, that would probably go over the $15 limit on last meals for convicts…

Sushi. SUSHI. Sushi! What do you like? I’m only a yellow belt in the Ways of Sushi, so I have to solicit recommendations where I can get ‘em.

In the hands of a really good chef, I have yet to find anything sushi-related that I will not eat and enjoy. I particularly like, however, sweet scallops, salmon skin hand roll, unagi (doesn’t everyone?), tobiko (which is flying fish roe), and yellowtail. These days, I’m trying to limit myself to species that aren’t overfished, however. Oh, morality, how you collide with baser appetites…

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I am currently avoiding working on book 2 of an epic fantasy trilogy set in an alternate central Asia (if most Western fantasy is set in not-Europe, this is not-Eurasia). That’s my big project right now.

Book one, called RANGE OF GHOSTS, will be out from Tor in March.

I’m also involved in an ongoing nifty online storytelling collective called SHADOW UNIT (www.shadowunit.org) with such people as Emma Bull and Holly Black. It is pretty cool, and I encourage anybody who likes modern-day science fiction horror to check it out.

17 comments

  • I know you! Or I’ve heard of you…you’re the most famous writer Wendig has interviewed! (you’re the first I recognized before the interview anyways).

    My question is, how did you get your agent (you have one right)? How did you break in?

  • She said Blindsight! Holy crap she said Blindsight! I LOVED that book, and I was afraid I was the only one who had heard of it.
    Now I’ll have to check out the others she listed. Great interview.

  • Amber:

    the usual process, with a couple of variations, and several rounds of rejections. There’s no real trick to it except writing an intriguing query and a book an agent thinks she can sell.

  • Yay! Elizabeth Bear!

    I love your work and I am so glad to see you interviewed here! I will bookmark my calender for your next set of novels, and check out your recommendations. I completely agree that I would love some more “gateway” science fiction. I started with fantasy, so I am a newcomer to science fiction. I mostly started with cyberpunk, but hard sf is not always my cup of tea. I would love some sf that was a little less dense for the beginner to pick up and enjoy. Despite that, your examples of dense SF sound intriguing, so I will check them out.

    Question: do you have any plans for publishing more books from your Promethean Age Series any time soon? I love those books, and I think the concept for a stand alone series is brilliant. Also, how did you manage to plot it out enough that you’re not tying your hands behind your back by writing books out of chronological order?

  • Elizabeth, we’re trying to find a publisher for the Promethean Age books, but there’s no guarantee, alas, that that will ever happen.

    I write most everything out of sequence, I fear–it’s the way my brain works. And it’s more a matter of intentionally leaving plot hooks and openings lying around than plotting things out rigidly.

  • …And now, I’m prepared to love you, Elizabeth – certainly already familiar with your work. “Mother Pusbucket” is my favourite, too. First time I heard it was Peter Venkman’s stunned curse upon viewing the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man in Ghostbusters.

    Blindsight, by the by, is by the outstanding Peter Watts and it is definitely not for the timid.

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