What happens when two writers from different genres come together to talk about science fiction, fantasy, and story crafting? Find out in part two of our SFF interview swap between Rachel Bach and Elizabeth Moon!
Elizabeth Moon has degrees in history and biology, and served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. CROWN OF RENEWAL (UK | AUS) is the final installment of her Paladin’s Legacy series. This gripping epic should be on every fantasy reader’s To Read List. Expect it to be hitting bookshelves on May 27th, or you can start at the beginning with OATH OF FEALTY.
Rachel Bach grew up wanting to be an author and a super villain. Unfortunately, super villainy proved surprisingly difficult to break into, so she stuck to writing and everything worked out great. Her current project, the Paradox series, is a high-octane SF adventure across many fascinating alien worlds. Look for the third novel, HEAVEN’S QUEEN (US | UK | AUS), online and in stores on April 22nd or start at the beginning with FORTUNE’S PAWN.
Rachel: First off, let me say what an amazing honor it is to get to do anything with Elizabeth Moon. I’ve been a fan of yours since my early teens when I took my mom’s DEED OF PAKSENARRION omnibus to school and nearly flunked out of 8th grade due to the constant class skipping reading sessions. In defense of my juvenile delinquency, I’d never encountered anything like Paks before. Her adventures, and the fact that she was the one having them, completely overturned my ideas of what was possible in Fantasy, and it’s hard for me to overstate the influence your books had on my writing. I can draw a straight line from my own stories, especially my Devi books, right back to Paks, and so my first question for you is, was that ever in your mind? While writing Paks, did you ever think ‘I’m writing a strong female character that young women will look up to,’ or was she just who she was?
Elizabeth: (First I dig my toe in the dirt, writhe a bit, and blush, muttering ‘Oh, shucks.’ Followed by ‘Wait – you skipped class in 8th grade? I never dared do that, and I hated most of 8th grade.’ OK, now that’s out of the way . . . )
The short answer is: ‘Not really.’ Like many first books, Paks was partly rebellion against books that didn’t give me what I wanted as a reader . . . including women who were more like real women I knew: women with agency, with intelligence and drive, with both physical and moral courage, and with interests beyond home and sex. And as someone who’d been fascinated with military history since childhood (legacy of WWII vets, including women vets) and a veteran myself, I wanted more realistic women in science fiction and fantasy military stories.
With the exception of Joe Haldeman’s THE FOREVER WAR, male writers who depicted female soldiers at all depicted them as cartoonish cigar-smoking butch lesbians with no military ability except looking butch and acting mean. (To be fair, a lot of the male soldier characters were equally cartoonish.) Female writers were writing women warriors by then, some of them with obvious knowledge of sword-fighting (for instance) but the female characters seemed always outsiders – not integrated into a military organization from recruit to commander, with characters of both sexes showing a range of skills. Yet in real history, some women had fought alongside men without being detected as women until badly wounded or dead. Others were known to be women and also fought well. I wanted to explore ‘the natural soldier’ as a woman. And it was mostly for my own satisfaction, though as my alpha-readers began to respond, it was also for them.
Paks cooperated by being who she was like a laser beam . . . through good times and bad, she was (and remains) one of the most purely focused characters I ever had to deal with, the easiest to write until the end of the book when she . . . rode away and hasn’t come back as a viewpoint character. It wasn’t until later, when I first got feedback from young women, that I realized what she might mean to them.
Rachel: When FORTUNE’S PAWN came out, it felt like every interview I did started with some variation of ‘how does it feel to be a woman in the man’s world of Science Fiction?’ This question always bugged me a little, because Devi Morris is hardly the first lady to strap on powered armor and star in her own book. Kylara Vatta and Sassinak were both kicking butt in space long before Devi picked up a gun. That said, did you get asked the boys club question, too?
Elizabeth: It’s incredible this is still being asked. When I was first published, in the late 1980s, there were already many women writing science fiction and fantasy – had been for decades. Anne McCaffrey had already been the first writer in this genre to reach New York Times bestseller status. Whatever the boys thought, it was no longer a boys’ club and hadn’t been for some time. Yet for years there seemed to be a ‘Women in Science Fiction’ panel chaired by a male writer at every convention. And I was the only woman on a military SF panel so many times.
The women already in the field all went through some of the same, and I give a lot of credit to the true pioneers, whether they wrote under their own name or a pseudonym or used initials. Andre Norton helped build the whole field. C.L. Moore wrote female characters with agency. I read both of them when I started reading SF. (And did not know for years that Andre Norton was a woman.) Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, C.J. Cherryh, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Barbara Hambley, Joanna Russ, Zenna Henderson, Vonda N. McIntyre just to name a few of the many. Every new batch of us got the same thing, because the public perception was that SF was all about Men With Rockets and Large Explosive Devices, written for teenage boys by men.
Rachel: And on that same note, do you think things have become better for women authors and characters in SF since you started?
Elizabeth: There are a lot more of us, and that’s made a difference. I think fewer women now would be told, as I was, that a woman could not write a military-based story or that women soldiers were not believable in SF or fantasy. Specifically for military SF and fantasy, more women veterans have entered the field since I did. More women of color have entered the field, as well, though we’re nowhere near enough yet. Women are still read and reviewed differently (or not read at all) and a lot of the history of women in the genre is just flat ignored (as when someone proclaims a male writer to be the first to have done something done repeatedly by women writers.) But on the whole, there’s definitely been progress, which should make it easier, in time, for women to achieve parity in readership and reviews. Even in the past decade or so of backlash against women’s progress in social/economic/political arenas, women have continued to make headway in science fiction & fantasy.
Rachel: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that writing a new series of novels in the Paksworld felt like coming home. I think that’s amazing! You’re clearly having a marvelous time exploring more of the world, but writing in a universe that’s already so well established must have its frustrations. Do you ever run into a worldbuilding decision you made twenty years ago and think ‘gah, why did I do that?!’
Elizabeth: Oddly enough, most of the time it’s been more ‘How on earth did I manage to place that very convenient set of hooks and latches exactly where needed to make a connection to the new story?’ One thing after another fit right into the new arcs. The two glitches I did find were not in worldbuilding, but in premature ‘timing,’ both of them in the book I wrote too soon after my mother died, when (I realized later) I was still grief-fogged. Aside from that, losing the foundation notebooks I’d carefully saved back when I wrote the first books caused extra work. I had to look up continuity details in the published books (they were written in a different word processor, no longer readable by anything, that won’t run on my current machines.) Even the original master map wasn’t where I was sure I’d left it. I expect it will show up after the last of the new series is out this May. But once I was well into the first volume, the world itself was still there . . . amply big enough for many more adventures. It was no harder to write in a well-defined imaginary world than in the ‘real’ one we inhabit.
Rachel: Finally (and I admit this is a total writer fangirl question), you wrote two books, SASSINAK and GENERATION WARRIORS, with another of my SF author idols, Anne McCaffrey. I have to know, what was it like writing with someone else? It seems to me like it would be a ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ type of situation, but you clearly handled it with aplomb. How does that work, and would you ever do it again?
Elizabeth: What I understand from other collaborating writers is that every collaboration is different. For me, at the time, it was an opportunity to learn from an incredibly talented writer with a very generous attitude towards her co-authors. I had read ‘Weyr Search’ when it came out in ANALOG and was a solid McCaffrey fan in college and after. Being offered a chance to write with her was . . . well, I bounced all over the house when the call came.
It was surprisingly easy to avoid the ‘cooks conflict.’ I understood from the beginning that I was the junior writer. It was Anne’s kitchen, and I was there to be her sous chef, as it were, not take over or change the menu. Chop the fictional carrots and onions, make the roux, and learn. In a sense, it was like writing fan-fiction at the side of the original writer, with her approval . . . and for pay. What’s not to like about that? By the second book, she liked what I’d contributed enough to give me more leeway (for example, with the blue plushy horse-shaped math genius and the spiky sulfur creature in GENERATION WARRIORS). She integrated whole passages I’d contributed with just a ‘I really liked this bit’ comment.
I learned so much from Anne. She pushed me into multi-viewpoint writing, taught me how to braid the different viewpoints into a coherent narrative stream, showed me the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ for things I’d done on instinct in the DEED but without understanding anything but the result. That experience made me a more solid writer, more in control of what I was doing. (And I could gush on about it for another hour, but . . . )
Rachel: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I can’t tell you how hard I fangirled when Orbit offered me a chance to do an interview with you. I love all your books beyond reason. Thank you for being such an inspiration!
Elizabeth: Thank you for loving the books. Warm glow. I enjoyed this part of it, and also enjoyed exploring your work and your website.