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Martha Wells: The Terribleminds Interview

Martha Wells is no slouch when it comes to writing — her first novel, The Element of Fire, landed with Tor in 1993 and her most recent novels, The Cloud Roads and The Serpent Sea are out now with Night Shade. That fails to mention the many short stories and non-fiction pieces, too. She submitted herself to the recent fusillade of questions here at terribleminds, so please give her a warm welcome. And someone get her a margarita. You can find her website here — — and she’s on Twitter (@marthawells1).

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.

Before I got married, I lived in a fourplex in the end unit next to a small grove of trees. It was part of a single row of fourplexes that backed onto a wide open field with some clumps of trees, then a highway, and then more fields and trees. (It was not a good place to live for a single woman, since if a murderer was looking to murder someone, this was pretty much the first apartment they would break into. It had everything but an “easy murdering here” sign.)

One Friday in the summer I had a terrible sinus headache so left work early and went home. It was late afternoon and I was sitting in the living room trying to write and noticing my headache was getting worse. I also noticed my elderly cat, who normally sat next to me on the couch, had gotten down under a heavy wooden endtable. Then I heard someone banging on the doors of the apartments. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because this area sort of specialized in randomly drunken college students, but the knocking was coming closer, like the person was banging on every door, then finally my door. I looked through the peephole and saw it was a woman who lived a few apartments down so I opened it. She said, “THERE IS A TORNADO IN THE FIELD BEHIND THE HOUSE. I THOUGHT YOU SHOULD KNOW.”

I said, “THANK YOU.” I knew it was true, even though the sun was still out and the wind wasn’t bad, and there had been nothing in the weather report, and the only real sign of it was the pressure in my sinuses and elderly cat’s survival instinct. (This became a big deal in town later, that there had literally been no warning of this thing.) She ran away and I shut the door, and ran through the living room and the little hall to the kitchen where, framed perfectly in the sliding glass doors, was the biggest freaking tornado in the world. This was the only time in my life (so far) where I said “Oh my God” and really really meant it.

I went and got elderly cat and we hid in the downstairs bathroom (an extremely inadequate equivalent to a basement but it was all I had) and waited. Except I couldn’t wait. I had to see where it was. So I went to the kitchen and looked out the glass door again, and the sucker was gone.

Or at least, I couldn’t see it. I crept outside like I was expecting it to jump me from the bushes, and looked around. No tornado. Then I looked up.

Seeing a tornado from the side is bad, but seeing it hovering over you is much worse. And I’ve heard people say that they’re afraid they wouldn’t recognize a tornado if they saw one, but believe me, in that moment there is no mistake. From directly below it is a horrible huge round wrong, very wrong, fundamentally wrong thing in the sky, and there is no iota of doubt in your body about what it is or that it wants to kill you.

The upshot is, the tornado did not murder me. I went back in the house to huddle in the bathroom. The tornado went away to bounce happily around town horrifying the crap out of people but did not actually kill anybody. It was looking for an audience, apparently, because it hovered over the university baseball stadium while a game was in progress. Then it wandered off back to Hell, where it probably lives in a happy threesome with Hurricanes Ike and Katrina.

Why do you tell stories?

There are a lot of reasons, but I think it all boils down to a need for communication. As a kid, I had a lot of issues with feeling isolated, feeling like an observer and not a participant in life, feeling like no one was listening to me. Making up imaginary worlds and people to entertain myself made me feel better, but what really helped was being able to tell a story and express what was going on inside me, even if I was expressing it through a completely different person who was blue and lived on another planet with three moons or whatever.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

When I work with people who are first beginning to write, one of the most common mistakes I see is when they make a character too passive. Usually this comes from the writer trying to figure out how the character would react to different situations, and instead of asking what the character would do, they ask what they would do instead. If you’re a tiny person with asthma, for example, your reactions and survival instincts are going to be completely different from someone who is an experienced detective, or a big beardy guy with a sword, or someone who has tentacles and lives underwater. You have to learn to step outside yourself and think like a different person, and a lot of people who want to write have trouble making that step at first. It’s like running someone else’s software on your hardware. Even if you’re a more experienced writer, and you’re having trouble with a tricky characterization, it’s worth it to step back and think “am I really in this character’s head, or is she so different from me that I’m shying away from what she would really do in this situation?”

Who’s your favorite character you’ve ever written and why? Related: favorite character you didn’t write?

My favorite character that was also the most difficult to write was Nicholas Valiarde, from “The Death of the Necromancer.”  He was a little bit of a sociopath, so his reactions to every situation were so different from what a normal person’s would have been.  It took a lot of work to get him right, but I was proud of the way he turned out.  He also showed up again in “The Ships of Air” and “The Gate of Gods” about thirty years older, so writing the older version of him was interesting and difficult too.  His daughter Tremaine, who is the main character of the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, is probably my second favorite.

Favorite character I didn’t write: I’m going to go with a recent favorite and say Zaboo from The Guild.  He is so much like the very young fan boys that I’ve known, so funny and smart and clueless all at the same time, and Sandeep Parikh plays him perfectly.  It’s been a treat watching the character grow up a bit over the five seasons of the show.

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

It’s great in that it’s fun in so many different ways. I love making up places and people, and getting stories out there to be read, and seeing how other people interpret what I’ve written.

It sucks because it can be a lonely job, sometimes. I think it’s less lonely now, with the internet where it’s very easy to connect with other writers every day and see you all have the same problems. But I have to spend a lot of time inside my own head, and that can be very isolating. Also, no matter how thick a skin you develop, when you put your work out there, it really does leave you vulnerable in a lot of ways. If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you get used to rejection, but even knowing that it’s inevitable, and will continue to be inevitable throughout your career, it’s still sometimes hard. It makes you feel like crap and but you have to get up and stagger out and go get some more, and you know you have to do it over and over again.

What’s the trick to writing good fantasy?

I wish I knew!  Ha, ha, anyway, what I try to do is write worlds and characters that I’m really excited about.  I try to come up with worlds that feel like they have infinite possibilities, where you don’t know what might be around the next corner or in the next valley.  And I try to think of interesting ways for my characters to explore those worlds.

You see writing advice telling you to never try to chase trends, that you should write what resonates with you, and I think that’s really true.  I end up writing about things that publishers don’t think will sell, but I think I’d do a bad job writing about the things they do think will sell.  So I’m just happy to write about my own weird stuff.

You’ve got a hefty writing resume under your belt — what’ve been the trials and triumphs of trying to get published over the years?

The biggest triumph of all was probably selling my first novel, “The Element of Fire”, which was published in 1993 by Tor.  It took me a year to write and I got a lot of “oh isn’t it cute, she thinks she’s writing a novel!”  I was around 27 when I was writing it, and people tended to assume I should be writing romance, and not a created world fantasy based on 17th century France with swordfighting and wheellocks and explosions.  The other big triumph was my third novel, “The Death of the Necromancer,” getting on the Nebula ballot in 1998.  It was actually a very stressful time, as my mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so the Nebula nomination was one of the few good things that happened that year.

The trials have mostly been in trying to stay published.  After “The Death of the Necromancer” came out, Avon was bought by HarperColins, and while I still had a contract for four subsequent novels, my original editor there was promoted and then left the company before most of the books were published.  There was also a problem with the cover of “Wheel of the Infinite,” my fourth novel.  The main character’s skin color was dark brown, and when the publisher did the original cover printing, they made her gray.  I didn’t find out about this until later, but fortunately the artist, Donato Giancola, put his foot down and made them change her back to brown.

I had a career crash in 2006, after my trilogy (“The Wizard Hunters,” “The Ships of Air,” “The Gate of Gods”) came out.  They were steampunkish with a giant ocean liner and airships, but that was before steampunk was popular.  The books got good reviews, but very little promotion, and didn’t do well.  After that I was still writing, but nobody was buying.  I did get to do two media tie-ins in 2006 and 2007 for my favorite TV show, which was a lot of fun and a creative change that I really needed.  Then I had to look for another agent, and queried one agency only to be told they were only interested in seeing work from established writers.  Being told that nine novels did not make me established enough was a big low point.

I think it did help to get my early backlist, “The Element of Fire,” “City of Bones,” and “Wheel of the Infinite,” back out as ebooks.  I didn’t sell another new fantasy novel until “The Cloud Roads” and “The Serpent Sea” sold to Night Shade Books in 2010.   That was a pretty big triumph, too.

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

Favorite word: Rollicking. I didn’t get to see the cover copy before my first novel was published, and I guess fulsome would be the best way to describe it. It used the word “rollicking.” Probably it was just in there once but in my head it was in there maybe 400 times. It made the book sound like a comedy, which it really wasn’t. There was a lot of death and sarcasm, but I guess the editor thought saying that in so many words would put people off.

Favorite curse word: I wish I had something more original but the truth is it’s just “fuck.” It’s the word of my Id.

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

I like margaritas (tequila, triple sec, and lime, on the rocks or straight up, with salt) but get drunk on them very quickly, because I’m a total lightweight. I recently discovered hard cider, and that’s really more my speed.

You don’t get away with mentioning tequila here without a followup question — got a favorite brand of tequila?

I tend to stick with Jose Cuervo, because pretty much every place has it.  If my tummy cooperates, I’d love to try some of the ones that are aged more than a year.  I’m not sure how different they’ll taste, but it will be fun finding out.

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

It’s tough to pick just one. I’m going to go with an older fantasy novel: The Birthgrave, by Tanith Lee, which was her first published novel and came out in 1975. It’s a created world novel, where a woman wakes up in a tomb in a strange city under a volcano, with no idea who she is, and goes on a journey through a strange landscape. It’s dark and rich and vivid and there’s a lot of sex, especially when you read it when you’re 11 years old and somewhat too young for it. It was a big influence on me.

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

I’m pretty ruthless. If a zombie was trying to eat me, or my family, or my friends, or my cats, or my neighbors, or random people or cats on the street, I would make that sucker regret it. I could think of a lot of terrible things to do to zombies. Zombies better stay the hell away.

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

This is another tough one. I can think of a lot of choices, but there’s a Mexican restaurant near where I live which makes sopes topped with shredded beef brisket, lettuce, tomatillo salsa and sour cream that I crave randomly a lot. That would be a pretty good last meal.

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

I just finished a new fantasy novel a few days ago. It’s the third book in a series that started with “The Cloud Roads” last year and “The Serpent Sea” which just came out from Night Shade Books. I know I’m about to start working on another fantasy novel, but have no idea which one of several semi-developed projects I want to move from back burner to front burner yet. I’m not under contract to anybody for anything at the moment, so the possibilities are wide open. I just know I want to write fantasy.

Tell us about The Cloud Roads and its subsequent sequels. Why are these books only you could’ve written?

“The Cloud Roads” is about a shapeshifter named Moon, who is an orphan with no real idea where he came from.  The species he most closely resembles are predators that feed on other intelligent species and destroy whole cities, so he can’t show anyone who he really is.  He lives in a world with a lot of wildly different races and cultures, but he’s never come across his own people.  When he does find them, he has to face the fact that he might be too different and never fit in.  Plus the colony of his people that he encounters is under attack and may be dying out, their social system is complicated and scary, and his role in it is not an easy one.  “The Cloud Roads” is about finally finding the place where you belong, and “The Serpent Sea” and the third book are more about the work it takes to actually stay there, when you’ve been alone for too long.

It took two years for “The Cloud Roads” to find a publisher, and it was rejected a lot.  I was surprised by this, because I thought, hey, it’s got dragon-like shapeshifters, and flying around, and adventure and fighting and gender role reversal and air battles and magic and sex and paranoia and cannibalism, publishers will love that!  Turns out not so much.  But Night Shade Books was willing to take a chance on it and “The Serpent Sea,” and I’m very grateful.  So far the books have gotten some great reviews, which is a big relief.

I don’t know that only I could have written them, but I think I could only have written them now, after all the different experiences I’ve had, if that makes sense.  I don’t think I could have written these books earlier in my career.  I’ve always been aware that I’m still learning how to write as I go along.  I think everybody who does new and different things is still learning.  I’m mainly still learning to push myself to make things bigger and stranger and further out of my comfort zone.