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WesternSFA
A Chat with Elizabeth Bear
by Catherine Book

I have recently become a fan of Elizabeth Bear and I was so pleased that she agreed to an interview while she was guesting at the 2015 Tucson Book Festival.

I started out asking her how important social media was to her.  For her, social media is an outlet to the outside world; helping her feel less isolated – a virtual watercooler, if you will.  She didn’t think it has a strong impact on her success; she doesn’t see that it has either helped or harmed her – except when it becomes a distraction.

Elizabeth feels that she’s been writing books all her life – or, at least since second grade.  That was when she had the epiphany that books came from someone and she decided she wanted to be a someone who wrote books.  Her first publication was a poem in her teens, her first pro book sale was a short story titled “Tiger, Tiger” which appeared in the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street. That story appeared directly after Neil Gaiman’s story which then won the Hugo so Elizabeth is sure no one read or remembered her story.  Her first published novel was “Hammered” in 2005, the first in her Jenny Casey trilogy.  I commented that in the past decade she’d been very prolific.  She responded that she’d had a lot sitting in the trunk; there had been a period in her life when all she did was write in 12-hour days.  But, as she observed, that level of effort just isn’t sustainable.  She discussed how writers perceived their output; that as a self-employed person, often writers feel a lot of pressure to produce.  This is where, she thought, that social media could have a detrimental impact – if one was to read that another writer just cranked out 10,000 words, they might feel obliged to match that.  But, so long as a writer can maintain a steady output – of say, 500 words a day – you could have a small novel in six months.  A lot of writers can develop a tendency to work themselves to death was Elizabeth’s observation.

Aside from her youthful influences of Walter Farley, she also sites Barbara Hambly and Roger Zelazny – she sees their influence the most in her own work.  She also felt that Jane Eyre was an influence in her newest story Karen Memory.

And how does the magic happen for Elizabeth?  Does she need a specific environment to write?  She said she made sure, early in her career, that she would not be constrained by props or a particular space.  She’s seen writers stalled because they were bed-ridden and unable to produce.  This has become particularly significant to her lately with all the travel she does.  She wants – and needs – to be able to write anytime anywhere with anything.  How about her production – does she have a personal quota?  Depends on deadlines, she replied.  Elizabeth doesn’t like feeling anxiety when a deadline is coming due so she works hard to be prepared.

What does she think is most important:  characters, setting or plot?  Yes, she replied, deadpan.  Elizabeth doesn’t see that any of those can be separated out, they work organically together.  It would be like, she explained, trying to figure out which part of the bird is most important to its ability to fly.  Where does she start in developing a concept? Oh, sometimes it’s the character, sometimes it’s a plot – and sometimes she has an argument and everything falls in around it.  She’s not bound by any one structure; sometimes using an outline, sometimes not.  Sometimes starting with an outline and later abandoning it; even starting the book and then going back to do an outline.  Some will start with a linear story and others will be bits and pieces pulled together.  Elizabeth appears to work at not pigeonholing herself.  She thinks that some writers identify themselves by their tools and techniques and she’d prefer not to be so constrained.  She sees it as owing a toolbox that she dives into depending on what she needs at the time.

How often does she produce a book?  Right now, she confessed, she’s writing a book in about nine months, which feels fast.  If she had her ‘druthers, she’d write a book in about 18 months.  That would be an ideal:  sufficient time to research, write a solid story, and get enough sleep.  She has, in the past, attempted to write more than one book a year but found herself mentally and physically exhausted.  And can she write on more than one project at a time?  Oh, yes, she asserted, she just about has to.  Her work is actually pretty staggered because although the writing may take only nine months, she needs research time before that happens.  And sometimes it helps to break from something where she might be stalled.  She’s also found that when she finishes a project she can quickly turn out one or more short stories that had been percolating in the back of her mind.  It feels real good to sort of clear out the backlog.

Right now, Elizabeth is working on a novel titled “The Stone & the Skull“, the first of another Eternal Skies trilogy.  The story focuses on two itinerant rogues who get into a tricky political situation.  It’s a bit of a Fritz Leiber homage, a bit of a “buddy movie” she laughed, with plenty of opportunity for snarkiness.  She’s also working on a space opera titled “Ancestral Night.”  Both should publish in 2016.  She has a short story “Bone War” set in the Eternal Skies universe that should be coming out in F&SF soon.

Does she have a favorite story or character?  She looked stumped for a moment and then said that she loved all her children.  Some were particularly fun to write, like Karen in Karen Memory.  She was an easy character who provided all her own stories and Elizabeth just followed behind writing them down.  Will there be another Karen Memory story?  Oh maybe, she laughed.  She’s got some ideas but no contract at this time.  Is there anything of which she is most proud?  “The Stratford Man,” she finally said.  This was a 1200 page novel that really pushed her skills at the time.  It was later published in two parts, “Ink and Steel” and “Hell and Earth” in 2008.

And is there anything that Elizabeth really wants to do someday?  Oh, my gosh, she exclaimed, yes!  She’s got a bunch of books that may not be finished either due to lack of time or lack of market interest.  There’s another Promethean Age story titled “Patience and Fortitude” that she really would like to get to write; although she has a concern about the amount of time between the last Promethean story and this sequel.  Was that because of her or due to the fans losing track of the story?  It could be the author, she explained, who isn’t the same person who wrote the first stories ten years ago.  It might be better, she admitted, if she just let it go.  She has another idea she has titled “Unsuitable Medal” which would be a historical novel set WWII that she would love to write…except that she’s sworn off historical fantasy.  Maybe, she mused, she could set in the Karen Memory universe.

I could have gone a lot longer but it was time to let her go.  Thank you, Elizabeth, it was a pleasure to chat with you.

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