Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Interview: Mary Robinette Kowal

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer as well as a writer. Her fiction has appeared in publications like Strange Horizons, Apex Online, and Clarkesworld Magazine. She is also the art director of Shimmer and the 2008 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! Since you're both a puppeteer and a writer, how did you first fall in love with storytelling?

I remember putting on plays in my back yard when I was in elementary school. I remember writing a story for my Mom as a Mother's Day present when I was in first grade. I don't remember a time when I didn't love it.

What aspects of your storytelling cravings does puppetry satiate? How about fiction? Are there any areas where they overlap?

Actually the areas where they overlap are all over the place. In both forms, I have to do world-building, character creation, figure out how the plot relates to how the story is told. These are all like puzzle pieces that have to be fit together so that the audience can see the picture. I love that.

How did you break into the puppetry industry? Did you have to apprentice yourself or did you study it in college?

I started puppetry in high school as a hobby. When I was in college, I was performing as the plant in Little Shop of Horrors when a professional puppeteer came to see the show. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that people would pay you to do puppets. I pretty much changed career tracks on the spot and started working with her. I went on to intern at the Center for Puppetry Arts and have been working steadily since.

How about writing? What made you decide to finally submit something to a professional market?

Part of the training I got was the importance of being paid for my art. It's not just a way to make a living, it's also a way to have an gage. If no one is willing to pay you for something that other people get paid for, there's probably something wrong. Granted, there are shows that are "for the love" types of things because there's no market for them, but largely speaking people pay for the good stuff. I know that sounds mercenary and capitalistic, but it's part of what's let me have theater as my day job for the last nineteen years.

I bring this up to explain that trying to get paid for writing seemed like a natural thing to do.

My brother had moved to China with his kids and I started writing a serial to amuse them. It turned into a novel. I started researching what one does with novels and, while shopping it around, started writing and submitting short stories.

How has your art major and theater/speech minor experience aided you in either career?

Oof. This is almost too big to answer because the truth is that it influences everything I do. The theater background gives me a sense of how story and audience interact. Art comes in handy with the puppetry because I build and design. Those are obvious ones.

But there are also subtle things like, how to critique and how to handle critiques that I learned in art school. Working with editors reminds me of working with directors. You learn to bend. And drawing... See, in drawing, you rough in the whole figure before you start doing detail work. A mistake a lot of beginners make is to start on the hand and get that perfect, and then the arm, and get that perfect. But by the time they get to the feet, they've lost the perspective and wind up with a distorted figure. I write the same way. I rough in the story in general phrases like, "Ninjas appear. Something bad happens. She solves it! Happily ever after" (Okay, quite that vague but you get the idea.) Then once I've got that, I start filling in the details. Sometimes, I'll move a limb, so to speak, to bring the composition into better balance, but it's still very much like the drawing process to me.

What are some of your favorite puppets?

Bill Baird's Scheherazade. Kermit, of course. The Bound Man at the Center for Puppetry Arts (Yes, my short story is titled after him, but bears no resemblance to the show he is from). And then of my own... Gerta from the Snow Queen, if I had to pick just one. Or maybe Shiro from "The Old Man Who Made Trees Blossom" but I think I like the character more than the puppet. It's hard to separate them.

How about favorite authors/books?

Guy Gavirel Kay's "Song for Arbonne"
Myrtle Reed "Flower of the Dusk"
Robert A. Heinlein "Stranger in a Strange Land"
Elizabeth Moon "Speed of Dark"

You know what this would be a long list. Let's use modern technology. Here's my LibraryThing account sorted for favorites.

What lesson sticks out the most for you from Orson Scott Card's Literary BootCamp?

Scott was talking about the difference between short stories and novels and said something like, "Imagine you are going to an island on a lake, In a short story, you get in the boat and head across to the island. In a novel, you can stop and have a picnic, meander around the shore or go fishing on your way there. In both cases, you are still going to the island."

What made you decide to apply for Launchpad? Similarly, what's a lesson you learned there that still resonates with you?

I had a number of friends who were accepted to the first year and they all raved about it. Plus, big telescopes. Hello? Why not apply.

A lot of Launchpad is still settling in. I think Jerry Oltion's tour of the universe was the most immediately useful because it got me thinking about the settings for extra-solar worlds and the sheer scale of the universe. We did this exercise where we tried to scale the solar system to fit inside our 30' classroom. In order to get it to fit, the sun could be no larger than a mustard seed. Jupiter was a grain of salt and Pluto would have been at the very edge of the classroom. Alpha Centauri, our closest neighbor, would have been another mustard seed (two actually, it's a binary) thirty miles away. Now imagine getting in a spaceship and flying there.

Congrats on recently winning the Campbell Award. How does it feel to win the award?

Thank you! It feels wonderful and surreal at the same time. I was describing this to my husband as the way I felt the first time I wrote my married name. It was wonderful, but I still looked at "Kowal" and thought "that's not me." It took a while for it to settle in because there was a disparity between my internal landscape and the external landscape. The Campbell Award is much like that. Totally exhilarating but every time I see "award-winning author" attached to my name I feel like they must be talking about someone else.

Among your fellow nominees, who are some of the writers that you admire? How about previous Campbell winners/nominees?

All of them. I read all of the other nominees' books, because I wanted to know what they wrote. The books are wildly different and all quite wonderful. I've had the pleasure of meeting or emailing with almost all of them and they are all very nice people too. I would have been happy to see any of them win.

Previous nominees? Jay Lake, John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Orson Scott Card... being on the same list with them staggers me.

What was the most challenging experience working on Shimmer Magazine? Most rewarding?

The second issue. We had some trouble with the printer that we thought we got straightened out, but the second issue was... problematic and we had to frantically find another printer at the last minute. Right now, the biggest challenge is finding time to work on it. My life has been much busier in NYC than in Iceland or Oregon. Most rewarding? Every time the magazine arrives from the printer. Every time I get to meet one of our authors. I'm very proud of the magazine and love doing it. I just wish I had more time.

What made you decide to run for SFWA Secretary? Any challenges you're currently running into?

A volunteer run organization is only as good as its volunteers. I'd seen SFWA do a lot of good things, but it was clear that they were pulling on the same bank of people all the time. I have a lot of experience with non-profit arts organizations and know how powerful they can be for their members. I wanted to be part of that.

Challenges? Actually, the new board is pretty collegial. Considering that we've been drafting new bylaws and adjusting other policies to bring SFWA into the twenty-first century, it's been pretty painless.

How did you first get involved with podcasts? How does your husband help you with your own podcasts?

I started in radio theater, with Willamette Radio Workshop but it wasn't until talking to Orson Scott Card at his bootcamp that it occurred to me to actually record audio fiction. My first recording was his "The Middle Woman" for Intergalactic Medicine Show's inaugural issue.

And yes, Rob definitely helps me. We're using his audio gear and he engineers them.

What for you constitutes a good podcast?

I have a hard time listening to them if they are compressed too much or if there are other recording issues. So if it's clean audio and a good story I'll be happy. I enjoy EscapePod, If You are Just Joining Us and This American Life.

I'm curious at how you end up reading other people's stories. Like how did Subterranean Press know you provided such services?

Word of mouth. I'd met John Scalzi at Readercon. We started talking about stuff and at some point the radio theater background came up. When he recorded, The Sagan Diary, with various women SF writers, he asked me to read for it.. Bill Schaffer heard me there and asked me to record Kage Bakers "Rude Mechanicals." Everything else sort of rolls from there.

If I were a good girl, I'd have my demo reel up online, but you know that saying about cobbler's children never having shoes? Yeah, just adjust it to refer to audio engineer's wives.

Have you thought of podcasting more of your own fiction?

Yes, but while we are in NYC the recording situation is so unpleasant that it is not going to happen.

How did you find/select your writing agent?

I got very lucky. Ken Scholes recommended me to his agent, Jennifer Jackson, at Donald Maass, I had heard very good things about her. So I sent in my manuscript and she accepted me.

Any advice for aspiring puppeteers?

Find a good company and apprentice there for a year. Then never work for free again.

Advice for aspiring writers?

Write, submit, repeat. Don't feel like you have to sell things in the order in which you write them. Look at the big picture.

Advice for aspiring podcasters?

Turn off the refrigerator, air conditioner and any florescent lights before recording.If you can hear it, so can we.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

I've got a story (Waiting for Rain) in this month's Subterranean online that I wouldn't mind sending some traffic towards.



Marshall Payne said...

Great interview, Charles. Great questions.

Charles said...

Thanks! Mary deserves the credit: she's the one who came up with the great answers.