Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to welcome back Lois McMaster Bujold to our Spotlight interview space. Nominated ten times for the Hugo Award for the Best Novel, she’s won that category four times, as well as garnering another Hugo for best novella, three Nebula Awards, three Locus Awards, the Mythopoeic Award, two Sapphire Awards, the Minnesota Book Award, the Forry Award, and the Skylark Award. In 2007, she was given the Ohioana Career Award, and in 2008, she was the writer Guest-of-Honor at the 66th World Science Fiction convention. Her works have been translated into over twenty languages. This week released her newest novel in her popular Vorkosigan Saga, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, to which she’s given the tag line, “If Jane Austen goes on a blind date with Matt Ridley. They hit it off surprisingly well.”
Welcome back to our blog! Last time we chatted, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance had come out and we talked about him and Miles Vorkosigan. With the re-release of Shards of Honor last November and February’s release of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, we return to the character of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. While I’m happy we are returning to Cordelia, what about her story called you to return to it now? And for readers less familiar with the books, what were some of your first inspirations and plans when you started writing Cordelia’s character?
LMB: Cordelia was the heroine of my very first book, Shards of Honor, which I started way back in 1982. It was also my first book published, in 1986, and launched my career. My first goal was simply to write, and finish, a novel, which I did with more than a little help from my friends; people can read more about the genesis of the series in The Vorkosigan Companion. I suppose making the protagonist a woman of about my own (then) age made the project just that much less daunting, when I was trying to bootstrap up so many new skills all at once in the midst of preschool children, intermittent poverty, and a difficult marriage. But I can hardly dub anything back then a plan; it was all just scrambling from crisis to crisis and trying to stay afloat as best as I could.
It’s been a long, strange trip in the three decades since then for both me and Cordelia. After The Warrior’s Apprentice, which jumped ahead 17 book-years to the beginning adventures of her son Miles, Cordelia was rather elbowed out of the spotlight, as seems to be parents’ fates in fiction. But as she firmly dodged the bullet of dying young sometimes literally meted out to fictional mothers (“That’ll shut them up!”), she continued as a minor but pivotal character in Miles’s next-generation saga. After the events of Cryoburn, which shoved Miles into his third new identity of his life and the series, fan after fan asked how he was coping with the changes, to which I thought the answer was obvious; he shoulders his new duties and carries on. But it gradually came to me that while Miles’s life narrowed at this stage, Cordelia’s opened out. That was new and unexplored country, and what better place to set it than on the new and unexplored planet of Sergyar?
With the intense focus on YA and coming-of-age tropes in fantasy and science fiction, older characters are less heard-from, partly I suspect, because they are generationally too alien not only to young readers – and protagonists — but to younger writers. It reminds me a little about how some writers have trouble writing characters of the opposite gender; they have no idea how those Others really think, so default to stereotypes. Having time-traveled the hard way into this later stage of life myself, reporting from the new landscape seemed an interestingly under-trodden path to follow. Particularly when also examining the impact of new science and technologies on possible extended-life choices.
I should add: the first two Cordelia books, Shards of Honor and its direct sequel, the Hugo-winning Barrayar, have recently been reissued by Baen Books in lovely, non-eye-straining trade paperback format, with new, coordinated cover art. I had the chance to give them both a fresh copy edit, too, and clean up old, lingering errata from the text. I’m very pleased to have them both out again in time for the new Cordelia book.
As a natural researcher and lover of science, what have been some of your favorite adventures in researching your books? Would you share a time when you might have been surprised in your research or when something you’ve discovered or a new scientific discovery might have affected your writing and plotting?
LMB: I am certainly a pop science fan. Besides PBS’s Nature and NOVA, I pick up a lot of science DVDs – I was most impressed recently with the two 5-parters The Brain with David Eagleman about the latest in neurobiology, and First Peoples, a round-up on the latest in human evolution, which is a field developing so fast that any writings older than a couple of years are out of date. I also rec Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, both the book and the show. I am likewise a fan of science writer Nick Lane, for his splendid books Oxygen and Power, Sex, Suicide.
And, of course, very pertinent to my new book, Matt Ridley’s classic The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. All of this accumulation gets piled up in one big compost heap of dimly remembered knowledge to inform my stories. If I venture into any very technical detail, I also like to run it past an expert to spot gaffes; happily, my SF writing career has brought me an impressive stable of willing fans able to vet my work at need.
While you’re writing, how much control do you have or exert over the plot compared to how much the characters’ personalities and choices move things along? Have you ever been surprised, in writing, when the plot has taken an odd turn or the character has done something unexpected? And if so, what happened?
LMB: It’s always a continuous-feedback process, all elements of a story – characters, action, setting, dialogue, props, throw-away lines that suddenly fire back — fueling and changing the others. Every scene written has the possibility of altering what could come next. Nevertheless, I’ve often stalled out when what seemed a perfectly good, rational plot development stops the story dead, instead. My characters don’t so much do the unexpected or “run away with the story”, as go on sit-down strike till I give them the right things to do.
My “outlines”, so-called, are more a cross between memory aids and very rough first drafts. I don’t make up the tale as I’m sitting in front of the computer, but rather, when I’m moving around doing other things. (But not when surfing the internet, which is antithetical to such creative meditation.) I capture these thoughts in notes in pencil, and when I have a scene-sized accumulation, shoved into order, then I go sit and actually write it all out, editing and improving as I go.
That said, the character of Earl Wencel Horseriver, as he developed in The Hallowed Hunt, notably hijacked the story. The most important relationship in the tale was supposed to have been between the hero and the heroine, not between the hero and the villain!
For newer writers just starting, what advice would you give them for world (or galaxy) building? What should writers consider if they want to have a rich culture for their characters to live in—and well-developed worlds for characters to explore (and possibly get into trouble)?
LMB: For a guide to thinking through the mechanics of one’s worldbuilding, a really excellent resource is this: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
Beyond that (which will take you a while), for me worldbuilding is tightly interlocked with characterization and viewpoint. Every character is the center of their own universe, and even for characters in the same story, that world will be uniquely different, in what they can see, what they notice, what they think about it. As a result, I often do my worldbuilding backwards, from the inside out – I start with a character, and then start reasoning my way to the world that must exist around him, from immediate situation to family history, culture and geography, world history, and so on. As long as all the links are in place and sound by the time you finish, it doesn’t matter which ones you start with.
On the business side of writing, what advice could you give to authors who want to make a career out of writing? Particularly in SF and fantasy?
LMB: Again, for the basics I can do no better than to recommend Wrede on Writing by Patricia C. Wrede. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18885487-wrede-on-writing
The business of writing has changed so much since I broke in (sounds like a caper heist!) to publishing back in the mid-1980s, I hardly feel qualified to give advice. Also, the world has gone from being devoid of informative resources (at least, mine was) to being flooded with them. But one thing hasn’t changed; one still learns to write fiction by actually sitting down and writing fiction. And the very best thing one can do for one’s story or one’s career is to sit down and write more fiction. All this promotional and para-writing activity that is currently recommended is all very well, but not if starts interfering with that core task. Over and over, I have seen that the best boost to my sales is a new work.
What is/are your passions when you’re not writing? How do you make time for your non-writing hobbies/things you love?
LMB: My main pastimes – reading and watching DVDs, both fiction and non-fiction – blend with my work, rather. I am especially fond of animation and anime, and good pop sci programming. I spend the necessary time on home, life, and health maintenance chores, all pretty stripped down and simplified these days. I don’t get enough exercise and outdoor exercise, though I do get some.
“Making time” is much less of an issue now than when I was younger and had to carve it out of the chaos by force. I sometimes wish I could shoot some of these leisure hours back in time to the younger me, who needed them so desperately, but oh well. The new limiting factor is not time, but interest and energy.
I’m not sure that I love the internet, but it sure does vacuum up any spare time left lying around. Sort of like a continuously operating time-Roomba. I also spend more time on para-writing and career-maintenance tasks, both made possible by and delivered by the internet, than I used to. On the other hand, I also pull some of that pop sci programming off pbs.org, so.
What is one thing that most people don’t realize about you that you’d like to share?
LMB: Well, one that comes up fairly frequently is my surname, which is Bujold. Starting with B. Not McMaster Bujold, McMaster-Bujold, or any other variant. McMaster is my maiden name, which I now use for my middle name. This is only important because books are filed alphabetically by their writers’ last names, and if it is gotten wrong, people will be looking for my books in the wrong place and not finding them.
The late Dutch writer Robert Van Gulik, author of the fascinating Judge Dee mysteries, had a similar problem, back when; some libraries and bookstores filed his work under “V”, some under “G”, and some under both. It made finding his tales something of a quest challenge.
If I could have seen the future, back when, I think I would have picked “Lois McMaster” for my writing name, which would have sped up book signings ever after. Too late now.
Oh, one other point I’d like to add about Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – despite what old Bujold fans, bless them, are saying, you shouldn’t have to read all the other books in the series first to understand this one. I believe it should also work as a stand-alone, a complete tale in itself, although one will certainly get a different reading experience from the text that way. (With luck, it’ll read as a science-fictional examination of the impact new biotechnology can have on the shapes of people’s lives.) The one valid reason not to try it as it stands is if one is actually planning to read the prior books and is very spoiler sensitive.
What projects and books can we look forward to in the near future by Lois McMaster Bujold?
LMB: Nothing is promised, nothing is in progress, and nothing is ruled out.
As part of my new semi-retirement, I am not only doing less travel and public speaking, I am also not pre-contracting books or stories. No deadlines, no expectations. I am trying very hard not to talk about writing projects, if any, till first drafts are all-the-way bagged. Otherwise, I have discovered, people tend to take anything I say and gallop off in all directions with it, risking artificial disappointment later.
That said, I think doing more short work might be both interesting and freeing. But every story has its own intrinsic demands, including for length, so there is no predicting.
Where can people find your work? (Besides ABSW ;)–though they should totally check here first!)
LMB: All the usual suspects in terms of bookstores and on-line bookstores. For my e-books, the Baen e-books store, Kindle, iBooks, and Nook. Also, people should not forget their public libraries!
How can we follow your work, share your awesomeness, or otherwise stalk you in a totally non-creepy way?
LMB: A complete list of books may be found here: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/293438-the-vorkosigan-saga-reading-order-debate-the-chef-recommends
And more information on my books is archived at www.dendarii.com, and I blog at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16094.Lois_McMaster_Bujold/blog. I post all my publishing news there, and Goodreads features a handy Author Q&A function as well.
If someone wants even more, there is also now this:
As always, thank you very much for your time! We do have Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen in the store for all our Bujold fans.