- Nov 1, 2004
Sagas and Anti-Epics, An Interview with Lois McMaster Bujold, for the Chronicles Network
by Teresa Edgerton
by Teresa Edgerton
Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most popular and respected Science Fiction and Fantasy writers writing today, gracefully moving from genre to genre, and steadily drawing in new fans along the way. Besides three Nebulas (two for novels, one for a novella), she has won numerous Hugo Awards. In fact, only Robert Heinlein has won more Hugos for Best Novel -- and, as she is still writing, there may be many more to come. Her first novel, Shards of Honor, quickly established her on the Science Fiction scene, and was subsequently followed by a hugely popular series involving the same characters and setting, which has come to be known as the Vorkosigan Saga. Her most recent books have been Fantasy: the fabulous Chalion Series, and an intriguing new series in progress, The Sharing Knife. However, fans of Miles and the Vorkosigan family should not despair, because there is more on the way.
I met Ms. Bujold at WesterCon this year, and she graciously agreed to an interview (no arm-twisting was involved, although I was prepared to go to those lengths, considering her popularity among Chronicles members.) After a brief email correspondence, here is the result.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: The Chalion books are wonderful. I had never read anything of yours before, and the first chapter of The Curse of Chalion completely won me over. The three books form a true trilogy, unlike so many multi-volume novels that are called trilogies these days. Did you originally set out to write three related but separate stories, or having started the first one did more story ideas set in the same world just keep coming into your mind?
LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD: I originally set out to write one book. I’d done a prior fantasy novel -- The Spirit Ring -- in the early 90’s, a sort of journeyman piece, a stand-alone, although at one point I contemplated a sequel set in Venice. At the turn of the millennium I had chanced to be financially ahead enough that I could afford a year to experiment, to write a book without a prior contract or any editorial expectations I felt obliged to fulfill. Chalion too started out as a one-off, but the character of Ista drew me. Every scene she was in tilted toward her, gravitationally. At one point I thought of giving her a larger role in The Curse of Chalion, as Caz’s romantic interest, but she deserved better than being a sub-plot in someone else’s story. (Also, my first reader went into conniption fits about the un-realism of any retired medievaloid queen ever being allowed to be or do anything, which discouraged me momentarily.) Ista needed a book of her own. The last scene of that first book was a sort of promissory note to her.
CN: Are there other stories set in that world waiting to come out?
LMB: At the time my agent took Chalion to auction, Eos actually wanted a 3-book contract. I cut them down to two, having developed an allergy to multi-book contracts previously. The Hallowed Hunt came up later, through an odd set of chances, but by that time I was already contemplating making it a thematic series, one book for each of the 5 gods. I’d already explored, in the Vorkosigan books, a series structure centered on one protagonist, and I wanted something that didn’t tie me down so closely to one setting, time period, and group of characters. So if I ever do get a chance to complete the Chalion books, it’ll be 5 volumes. Caz belonged to the Daughter of Spring, and Ista to the Bastard. Bully-boy Ingrey and his spirit wolf (from The Hallowed Hunt) were definitely the pets of the Son of Autumn. I still have the Father of Winter (god of justice) and Mother of Summer (goddess of, among other things, medicine), and I have beginning notions for both books, but I haven’t had time for them yet. I don’t know if I’ll still have the same notions if and when I do. The Father’s book would be next in my queue if I didn’t have other obligations.
There are yet other series structures; I’ve just finished one of the a-continuous-tale-in-several-volumes sort, of which more below. I’ve also been intrigued lately by a structure used over in Romance, a genre which generally resists sequels, that takes on a group of people with one romance for each person in the group -- family, old school friends, war comrades, whatever -- with their books interlocking.
CN: I’ve read that there is another Vorkosigan book in the works. Are there any hints you can give us about the story?
LMB: As of this writing, this project is about to arrive on my plate. I finished the fourth [I[Sharing Knife[/I] book a few weeks ago, and I’ve switched from post-book-collapse mode to general cultural filter-feeding mode. Reading books written by someone else, yay! I don’t read much when I’m deep in a writing project, because I can’t spare the brain room and I get unwanted style and idea leaks, so I generally come off a project in a reading-starved state. Next up on my to-do list are some business travel, which I no longer love, and some repeat middle-ear surgery, which I love even less. When I’ve recovered from both, which I estimate will be about the end of this year (2007), I trust ideas will be starting to form up. So no, no hints yet.
I need more walks to pump blood through my brain, but midwinter in Minneapolis isn’t too pedestrian-friendly.
CN: Without giving away the endings of either of the first two TSK books,, could you tell us something about the sequels? Will we learn more of the history of that world?
LMB: We certainly learn more of the world in Dag and Fawn’s present-day; not so much of its prior history. The next two volumes are a journey-story, there and back again. River journeys and road trips are both American classic tropes, and TSK is very America-inspired (but not, be it noted, otherwise connected with our world.) The Sharing Knife, Vol. 3: Passage is in production at Eos right now for publication in May 2008 -- we just worked out the cover design, which will be another gorgeous painting by Julie Bell. That one is devoted to a river journey, and mysteries both human and uncanny. The next I’ll see of it will be the copy edit, which actually should drop on my doorstep fairly soon. The fourth volume, whose subtitle is still in debate, is finished in submission draft and sitting on the editor’s desk waiting for its line-edit pass, on which there is no rush as it won’t be out till spring of 2009.
The subtitle for Vol. 4 is a bit of a puzzle. The working title for the second pair was The Wide Green World, and I still hanker to get that in if only as a subordinate label, but the prior three books rather demand a single-word subtitle so as not to break the pattern. We’ll see.
CN: Your stories seem to be intimate and personal rather than epic, even though there are often far-reaching consequences at stake. In The Sharing Knife, the characters are, in a very real sense, fighting to save their world, but it’s one small battle at a time, and the rest of the world doesn’t even know there is a war for survival going on. It seems to me that this one could have easily developed into a sweeping epic; was it a deliberate decision to avoid that and concentrate on the individual struggles of just two characters, or did the story just evolve that way?
LMB: In a lot of ways, TSK is my argument with standard fantasy tropes, an anti-epic. I actually had two literary experiments going on at once in the tale as it grew in the telling, which I grant makes for a somewhat messy design. (Although most of all, I simply wanted -- no, needed -- a story that I would enjoy writing.)
The first was the problem of dark lords, and all plots that have as their point defeating same in a war-to-end-wars. In our world, regardless of how many supposed dark lords one defeats, there’s a new evil along all the time, with the depressing regularity of a bus schedule. What if, in a fantasy world, this realistic pattern was made explicit? What would the struggle look like then?
The second was an interest triggered by writing the novella “Winterfair Gifts”, which I did at the invitation of Catherine Asaro for a cross-over anthology between F&SF and romance writers. I was fascinated, after, by the reviews from the two camps. Each set of readers read the same text, but each took a very different and often barely intersecting slice across the material in terms of what elements they focused upon as “the real story”. I’d often had romantic sub-plots in my fantasy or science fiction; what would a book look like if the romance was instead made the central backbone?
The Sharing Knife, all 217,000 words of it in first draft, was my worked answer to both those what-if questions.
The duology format -- splitting the tale at mid-point -- was a post-book event, a compromise with assorted publishing-economics issues. The wait for the second half to be published was probably more agonizing for me than for the readers. But now it can be read as one story, as originally intended.
CN: Will the new duology have that same kind of focus?
LMB: The focus widens somewhat; but do remember, these people don’t have modern communication systems. All action is necessarily local for them. And the romance part, in the sense of a courtship-to-commitment story, is a done deal. But if the first pair (really one story, remember) is the tale of the formation of a couple, both parties leaving behind birth families and communities that seriously don’t work for them, the second pair includes, among other things, the logical consequence of the need to form a new family and then a new community, ones that do work both for Dag and Fawn and for their world.
The second pair of books was more a duology-on-purpose this time, although when I began writing there still lingered the possibility that it would be one fat book. That notion was abandoned fairly soon. I did wait to send it to contract till after the third volume was complete, and the pattern had settled. None of the volumes of The Sharing Knife tetrology are meant to be stand-alones, but the last pair are at least more rounded than the first sharply-split pair, and so I trust Passage won’t be quite as frustrating for some readers. Lots of new characters and settings. You can think of it as a tetrology, a double-duology, or an occluded trilogy with volumes of very uneven lengths. Eos is packaging it as a tetrology with volumes numbered 1-2-3-4 so as not to unduly confuse the bookstores.
I also wanted to give my protagonists a grown-up problem to tussle with, not just a facile task like bopping the biggest boss baddie at the end of a computer game. In this case, it was a demographic problem, something for which Dag doesn’t even have a word in his vocabulary, but he sees it clearly enough. Any boss-like baddies who might, just possibly, chance to turn up in all their action-driving glory in this series are there as scalpels to explore the real underlying demographic-cultural problems, not as ends in themselves. Parallels with our own world are left as an exercise for the reader.
CN: Are there any other projects waiting in the wings?
LMB: The Vorkosigan book for Baen, mentioned above, is next by contract. After that I’ll be free to choose again. I now have three different series-rabbits to chase -- Vorkosigan, Chalion, and the Sharing Knife -- and that last world fairly cries out for some sort of next-generation treatment. And then there’s the possibility of doing something completely different, which, I have noticed, no one ever asks me for, so if I want it I have to grab it for myself.
In 2009, which would be the earliest I can do something new, I will turn 60. Who knows what the next decade will look like from that vantage?
Besides short. I’m pretty sure, from the way my subjective time is speeding up, it’ll look short.
CN: It was a long time between The Spirit Ring and the Chalion books. What brought you back to fantasy after so many years?
LMB: Opportunity, mostly. From Mirror Dance through A Civil Campaign the Vorkosigan series had developed into a strongly-connected psychological and series arc that demanded its own closure; once the final book had completed that closure, my mind was freed to look around at other possibilities. And, as mentioned above, my finances had become secure enough for practical purposes, enough space and time to buy me one free book. I’ve always liked fantasy co-equally with SF, so I was never away from it in the sense of losing interest, but I can only work on one project at a time.
CN: Many readers not only regard Miles as an endlessly fascinating character, they seem to feel the same kind of affection for him they would feel for a real-life friend. Was he, in fact, based on an actual person? Do you see recognizable bits of people you know in him? Or is he purely a child of your sub-conscious brain.
LMB: He had a number of initial sources, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere, but he very quickly became his own man, made by his stories, his actions and choices, and every word out of his mouth. With so many books over which to develop, he’s had room to grow complex, which is another series-advantage.
CN: Is there one of your characters to whom you feel closer in some way than to any of the others?
LMB: At the moment, Dag and Fawn, but that’s because I’ve spent the past three years thinking so intensely about them and for them. I have yet to decompress from their tale. Dag embodies my experience of being an older person, Fawn my memories of being younger; between them, they allow me a sort of integration of past and present.
CN: Your books often feature a love story along with the science fiction or fantasy elements. For science fiction in particular, this almost seems counter-intuitive, yet even readers who would otherwise never come anywhere near a romance novel enjoy your books. Could you give us your thoughts on SF/F and romance, the market for works that combine these elements, and your fans' reaction to the various love stories in your books?
LMB: The gender/genre bias has been a fascinating thing to explore, lately. There is definitely some bifurcation between the SF and romance readership along gender lines, though in the middle of the continuum quite a number of folks, writers and readers, are currently trying for some hands-across blending. But there are still populations on both ends who don’t seem to want to have anything to do with the other. SF tends to be an interestingly anti-domestic genre, on the whole, and fantasy emphasizes the importance of the political at the expense of the personal; in many tales the personal exists solely to be sacrificed for some imagined higher good, usually the good of the plot. (This is taken to the extreme in the standard men’s-adventure plot that begins with the hero’s wife and family being blown away by the bad guys, which gives both hero and reader a free moral pass to enjoy the ensuing blood bath.) Romance, of course, is all about the primacy of the personal.
My survey of romance writers crossing over to SF territory isn’t very far along yet, but my first impression is that their world-building doesn’t always go all the way to the edge of the page, and that there is a tendency to drop old romance patterns down unaltered into the new landscapes. A skiffy-minded writer instead asks, How will the changes in the world change old romance patterns? SF-nal thinking is all about ringing (and wringing) the changes; the genre rewards innovation.
One romance author I’ve read a barge-load of books from lately is making a tidy fortune writing essentially the same plot over and over -- Beauty and the Beast, always a winner -- got up in different fancy dress, contemporary, historical, and futuristic. Reading her books is like eating a pound box of chocolate-covered cherries, each the same as all the others. But if a science fiction or fantasy reader doesn’t get at least two Crunchy Frogs and a Spring Surprise in every box, er, book, they think they’ve been cheated.
My experience so far with genre-blending is that while F&SF readers don’t mind a bit of romance as a sub-plot, they are very taken aback to have it presented as a main plot, urgently looking for the “important” political action to identify as the plot instead. Romance readers in turn don’t mind a bit of suspense or political action tucked in around the romance, but don’t want it getting in the way of or replacing the main game. It goes a little further than just a preference of proportion. Underneath is a hidden judgment about what is and is not important in human lives.
CN: I particularly enjoyed the romantic element in Shards of Honor. In fact, it’s my favorite sort of love story: instead of false conflict being generated by characters who insist on mistreating and misunderstanding each other, these characters have a true understanding and respect for each other, and the conflict comes from outside. Was the romantic element planned from the beginning, or did the characters simply insist on falling in love once you brought them together?
LMB: My Middle-Aged-Romeo-and-Juliet-in-Space plot (or “Beauty-and-the-Beast-in-Space” plot, depending on how you squint at it) was the starting-point for the book. What happened when that initial set-up was run through some of the more SF-nal-possibilities wringer, not to mention the political mill, turned it into the book it became.
I am not especially fond of stupid personal misunderstandings as a plot-driver for romances either. Intelligent misunderstandings are much harder to bring off, though it can be done.
CN: As a reader, what makes you reluctant to keep on reading?
LMB: Horrible people doing horrible things to one another; a toxic or dreary authorial world-view.
CN: What makes you eager to keep on reading?
LMB: The reverse, pretty much. If I become quickly emotionally engaged with the characters, I’ll want to follow their fates. If not, not.
Of late, I’ve found that the writer’s voice is increasingly important to me. This goes beyond just a smooth or spiffy style. More and more as I read I have the sense not of entering another world, but of entering another writer’s head. There are some head-spaces I enjoy occupying, others I don’t. If the scenery is ugly, I don’t hang around. If I find a writer who manages to strike exactly the right tonal balance, shrewd and with an underlying sense of humor, I feel as if I’ve stumbled onto treasure.
For a lot more questions, with answers, I direct you all to:
Interviews with Lois McMaster Bujold
Essays by Lois McMaster Bujold
for more than you ever wanted to know about p/e/n/g/u/i/n/s Lois McMaster Bujold.
©2007, Chronicles Network
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