Seanan McGuire is the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Middlegame and the new Seasonal Fears, along with dozens of other critically acclaimed novels and novellas. In 2010, she won the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (previously the John W. Campbell Award), and currently holds the world record for most Hugo Award nominations in a single year.
In addition to the Alchemical Journeys series, her critically acclaimed works include Every Heart a Doorway, which won a Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and Alex Award the year it was released. To mark the release of Seasonal Fears, a return to the world of Middlegame, Ms. McGuire met with me over Zoom to discuss the new book, cursed beans, and why humanity’s oldest stories are nightmares.
In Middlegame you introduced us to Roger and Dodger, twins separated at birth who are reunited to fulfill a great destiny, but only at great cost. It’s an amazing story, and I for one got pretty attached to the old Midwich cuckoos. But it seems the new sequel Seasonal Fears, while set in the same universe, follows entirely different characters. Why did you decide to strike out in a new direction, and what can fans expect from this installment?
I mean, a couple things. One, I explicitly don’t call it a sequel, I call it a side-quel, because it is dealing with different characters in the same universe. And part of that is that if you read Middlegame, you know that I leave Roger and Dodger at the equivalent of Level 20 for Dungeons and Dragons characters. They are no longer great point-of-view characters, because challenging them has become extremely hard. You’re not going to tell a hugely compelling story when you have people who can literally just rewrite reality if it annoys them today. And it annoys them most of the time, so reality gets rewritten a lot.
I don’t even know if something can happen to Roger and Dodger. They’re more the sort of people that happen to things than the sort that things happen to.”Seasonal Fears (2022)
So I had this other story that I wanted to tell that fit inside the same world. Harry and Melanie have been with me in my head about as long as Roger and Dodger have, and they clearly fit into the same universe. As to what readers can expect, they can expect about 152,000 words, for one thing, but apart from that they can expect a heavily folkloricly informed look at the concept of Seasonal Monarchs, which is something that has existed in western literature going all the way back to the time when on Christmas morning you might find a bean in your bread that meant your family was going to hunt you through the woods and kill you to bring back the spring.
So you mentioned that Harry and Melanie have been with you for almost as long as Roger and Dodger have, but where the first Alchemical Journeys book was a story about family, it seems Seasonal Fears is a more traditional love story for Harry and Melanie. Why did you decide to make that change in tone, if you do see it as a significant change, and how do you think it affects the new book?
It’s absolutely a change in tone; whether something is a romance or not sets a lot of story beats. But I think assuming that it’s a choice is giving a certain amount of narrative control to an author that they don’t necessarily deserve. We write the books, we don’t necessarily decide what our heads are going to serve up this time as the thing we get to tell you. Harry and Melanie’s is the story that I was presented with, so that was the story I wrote.
As for why I did it different ways, Middlegame is kind of a book that I wrote for my brother. And every single time someone has talked about shipping Roger and Dodger, which does happen on the internet because, hello, the internet, we both die a little bit inside. This is straight up a book for my brother, could you stop? Readers, they could not stop.
But there are different kinds of love, and I hate that our society tends to privilege the different kinds differently. If someone is a romantic partner, you’re supposed to make them the entire center of your world and that’s normal and that’s okay. But if someone is a sibling that you just want to spend all of your time with, or a close friend in a non-romantic sense, you’re supposed to set them aside as soon as you get that romantic relationship. And I don’t like that, so I like to explore the different ways that relationships fit into our world.
That’s really interesting to learn actually, I had no idea Middlegame was inspired by your real life brother. But I am curious: both Middlegame and Seasonal Fears, and some of your other works like Every Heart a Doorway, are very character driven. The narratives grow out of these characters you develop, and to a one they’re all very compelling figures who feel like real people. So, other than your brother, where do you get the inspiration for these characters, and how do you get yourself into their voices to tell the story?
Short answer: Lots and lots of Dungeons and Dragons. I spent a lot of time learning how to pretend to be other people.
I don’t even know what we’re looking for,” she says. “You haven’t told us. You’ve spouted a lot of [stuff] about the Up and Under and A. Deborah Baker and killer death alchemists, but you haven’t followed it up with ‘and we just need to find the magic Denny’s where they sell the coffee of conjuring and everything will be hunky-dory.’ It’s like playing D&D with an unprepared Dungeon Master. You’re the one who knows the rules to this [stupid] game.”Middlegame (2019)
Erin blinks. “Good call,” she says. “I think it’s about a half mile that way.” She points, as both Roger and Dodger stare at her.
“What is?” Roger asks, after a moment’s bewildered silence.
Erin grins. “The Denny’s. Come on.”
And as to where any character comes from, they come from “I met someone” or “I saw something” or I just had a thought — what it would be like if X were Y or if Q were W? I like to try to understand people, but also if you’ve read Every Heart, that series especially runs into a principle of mine, which is that any time someone I know, meaning someone I know well enough that they would have my Discord handle, says that they don’t get to see themselves in books, that they don’t get to see a person like themselves represented, I go out of my way to do extra research and then put a person like them in my next book. Because everyone should be allowed to see themselves in literature, and even more importantly, everyone should be given the opportunity to see people that aren’t like them in literature.
Yeah that’s amazing, so thank you for prioritizing that in your work. Going back to something you said a little earlier about the heavy use of folklore in Seasonal Fears, you mentioned the idea of finding a bean in your bread and being chased by your family through the forest, and that’s a pretty terrifying thought. And there are definitely elements of horror in Middlegame, and Seasonal Fears, and Every Heart, and a lot of your work. So I guess I’m curious what drew you to using elements of horror in your writing, and has there ever been a time when you wrote a scene that didn’t make it into a final book because you decided it went too far?
Well I went to college, University of California Berkeley, for a degree in folklore and mythology. And at that point the only way you keep the people who are older than you in your life from telling you that you have wasted your entire childhood is to incorporate folklore and mythology into as much of your adult work as possible. So downstairs in my office I have a folklore collection that many libraries would envy, because acquiring them is nice, and I enjoy reading those things. And if you go back and start looking at the older stories that would be a part of folklore, the fairy tales, the faerie stories, the folk tales, there is so much horror! Fairy tales are not a fantasy subgenre, they’re a horror subgenre.
Blood on the barley and blood on the snow.”Seasonal Fears (2022)
Even in the ones we think of as very sweet today, somebody’s probably dead, and if they’re not dead they’re getting maimed. Something really horrible is always happening, and Disney has not done us a major favor by giving us this idea that fairy tales are sweet and light and cuddly and absolutely suitable for children, because they’re really not. And that pretty much just fried my understanding of story from a very early age, so the horror is indelible. It’s less that I choose to use horrific elements and more that my editors have given up on trying to make me stop. As for things that are too horrific and don’t make it into the book, I have never had something that I looked at and went “Oh this is too much, this is going too far,” and so I cut it out.
I have had things I cut out because they didn’t serve the narrative purpose that I wanted them to serve, or it seemed like a really great idea two drafts ago but not so much now. Characters have lived and died because of that, and we have had changes to drafts because of real world social conditions. If things in the real world have gotten particularly bleak for a group of people, maybe their fiction doesn’t need to be targeting them right now, that sort of thing.
Why do you think that is? That in some of our oldest stories humanity seems to gravitate toward narratives that can be horrifying or disturbing?
A lot of those oldest stories, that we have records of, were cautionary tales. When Little Red Riding Hood was being told for the first time, when that was a new story, that was the equivalent of “my friend Randy’s brother saw a crocodile in the sewer.” Everybody knew somebody whose grandmother lived on the other side of a forest, and saying, “Hey, don’t leave the path, a wolf will straight up eat you,” was extremely useful. That was information that you wanted to give. But if you say, “Don’t leave the path or a wolf will scare you,” well some kids like to be scared. Some people like to be scared. I used to go hunting for rattlesnakes when I was a kid because I thought it was fun! It’s not until you add on that horrific element, that “Suzie from down the block left the path and wolves ate her,” that it’s going to actually become a deterrent for some people.
We also see this with news stories. If somebody reports something incorrectly, or says something too soon, we are very resistant to the idea of forgetting it, especially if it is something that is more sensational than whatever the truth eventually turns out to be. We want, as a species, that titillation, we want that adrenaline hit and that excitement of fear. And so that draws us in our storytelling to keep audiences toward the darker stories.
Yeah and your books are thrilling, certainly, Middlegame in particular. I remember when I first started reading it I stayed up all night because I always wanted to turn that next page. But you mentioned that your editors have given up trying to get you to stop, and some of the scenes you include in your books, while they are brilliant, can be disturbing. So I’m curious if you see yourself as writing for a YA audience, because I know as a teenager I love your books, and a lot of them, Seasonal Fears especially and Every Heart, have focused on young people as narrators. Middlegame does too to some extent, although they’re adults by the end of the book. So A) what draws you to that perspective of young people in your work, and B) do you see yourself as writing for those young people, or is your audience more adult?
This attitude that if you’re writing about teenagers you must be writing for teenagers is actually very new. When I was a teenager, I was reading books by Stephen King and many other authors who would write about people my age, but were not writing for me. Firestarter by Stephen King is not a book for 11 year olds, even though that’s how old Charlie is at the start of the book. So I have not actually written anything specifically for a YA audience. I do write the Woodward Wall books under the name A. Deborah Baker, which are for a middle grade audience.
And part of the reason that I don’t say that I write YA books, even when I have those teenage narrators and teenage protagonists, is that there are different rules for writing YA. Oh, I told a lie, I did write one YA book: I also write under the name Mira Grant, and Mira is much more of a direct horror author. Mira is not adding dark themes to fantasy, Mira is just straight “What if mermaids were real and would eat your face off?” As Mira I wrote an Alien tie-in, called Alien: Echo, which was explicitly a YA book. And what I learned from that was when you’re writing YA there are different rules.
As a high school student you must be aware that some parents are very invested in controlling what you are and are not allowed to read. And they think that if we just don’t ever say swear words or mention s-e-x where teenagers might hear us, then teenagers will not figure out those things exist. They have forgotten being teenagers! I didn’t need adults to say any of that stuff to me, I was uncomfortable when adults said that stuff to me, but I figured out a lot of it out entirely on my own.
So when you’re writing for a YA audience, you can’t use most swears. You’re generally allowed one big swear per book, and that would be a word that starts with the letter F. And you have to keep your casual swears to a lower level. That limit is not there in adult fiction at all. To be clear, we’re using adult to define age groups, not sexual content. You could read my entire body of work, you would not find much in the way of sexual content. I don’t like writing it, it bores me. But you can’t really have much of that anyway.
There is sex in YA, but it’s always off screen, it’s always very danced around, in a way that frankly none of my teenage boyfriends danced around it, they were a lot more upfront than these books are! And you can’t have a lot of drinking, and you can’t have casual drug use, anything like that. Now those aren’t themes I tend to focus on a great deal anyway, but I don’t like being told what not to do, so I stick to adult fiction because there at least they’re just sort of like, “Okay, she’s doing her thing, she’ll have a book for us in a week, we’re going to leave her alone.”
As for what draws me to that age range, every adult you meet still has been every age that they’ve been. If you’re seventeen, you can still put yourself in the headspace of a twelve year old, if you really stop to think about it. “When I was twelve, what would be the most interesting thing here? What would I want to do?” And that works for most people back to about between 9 and 12, that’s really where we start thinking like the adults we will become. Before that, six year old me was a weird little alien. I can think about what she did, but I have no idea why she did any of that stuff! Why, why? What made those choices? Teenage me, I go “Okay, what did she do here? Oh, well that makes sense. Not my priorities now, but that makes sense.”
People keep telling him his love for Mel only seems like the sun because he doesn’t have anything to compare it to; that eventually he’ll be able to see it for the candle it truly is, because it will be set against all the other candles he’s lit in his lifetime. Maybe they’re right and maybe they’re wrong, because right now, he’s seventeen years old and his love for her is the sun, bright and burning and utterly all-consuming.”Seasonal Fears (2022)
And it is pleasant to have an excuse to think about going back to being an age that you had enjoyed, a time that you had enjoyed. And our culture really likes to tell stories about young adults because they have fewer things tying them down. They are grown ups: Harry and Melanie, who are in their late teens, they’re getting ready to graduate high school, they are legal adults at the time the book starts. So I can say that Harry and Melanie have sex, or go to a Denny’s at 2 AM, or do anything of those things. Nobody’s going to stop them, they’re allowed. But it’s all still new to them, it’s all still exciting, and they don’t have to worry about “If you don’t make it home by the 1st no one’s paying the mortgage.”
You mentioned rewinding in your head and putting yourself in the shoes of a younger person, and I know a lot of authors do say they leave something of themselves in their characters. So is there a character that you’ve written, from Alchemical Journeys or from anything, that you see yourself in most?
Every character has a bit of me in them, that’s inescapable, I wrote them. Probably the character with whom I relate the most is going to be Dodger, because I was one of those gifted children who was excellent at the wrong things.
Roger has learnt to go unnoticed to avoid the persecution of others. Roger isn’t a girl with bright red hair and a passion for math. Going unnoticed was never an option for [Dodger]: he knows that down to his bones. She had to go in the opposite direction, becoming mercurial and never stopping long enough to be caught.”Middlegame (2019)
We as a system set gifted children up to suffer. We tell them, “Oh, you’re special, you’re magical, we don’t have to fix the world, you’re going to fix the world in a few years. It’s cool if we don’t resolve global warming, you’re going to do it, because you’re so special!” And this separates them from their peers and puts them into a position for extreme bullying and abuse at school, which the adults then do nothing to step in on. Unless that has changed dramatically in the last couple of years.
Smart kids get put on a pedestal by parents and teachers alike, and the rest of the class gathers around the base of it throwing rocks, trying to knock them down. People who say ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ don’t understand how words can be stones, hard and sharp-edged and dangerous and capable of doing so much more harm than anything physical.”Middlegame (2019)
And it is so gendered. If a student that is presumed male is really good at math or science he’s going to get all the support in the world. He’s still going to have the social consequences of being a “Gifted Kid,” but he’s going to have teachers that stand up for him, he’s going to have those resources, all of that. If a student that is presumed female is good at English, or drama, or something like that, she’s going to get the same treatment. But a boy who is excellent at drama is going to be yelled at for being gay, is going to be abused in some way, even more severely by his peers. And a girl who is good at math gets it from her teachers.
Yeah that definitely always stood out to me in Middlegame, just how much Roger and Dodger go through as kids. The same is somewhat true of Harry and Melanie, but I think more so in Middlegame. There’s a really disturbing scene in the first book where Dodger attempts suicide, and that definitely goes to what you said about how difficult the lives of your characters and gifted kids in general can be. And I think that really stood out to me because Roger and Dodger, and Harry and Melanie, are to some extent chosen ones, right? They’re these magical, gifted people.
A little bit, yeah.
But in comparison to say Harry Potter or Percy Jackson where you find out you’re the chosen one and everything becomes magically perfect, these are horror books. Roger and Dodger certainly do not have fun being magic. So it’s definitely a very unique story, and the world of Alchemical Journeys in general has these shades of horror and magical realism and a bit of time travel fiction, and it really isn’t like anything else I’ve ever read. So not just the characters, but also the world of alchemy, what inspired that for you? When did you sit down and think, “I’m going to write about alchemists”?
Well I wanted to do something with those seasonal monarchs because they are so prevalent in Western European folklore, which is kind of where I focused in school. And then I wanted it to be more than just them, I needed a concept that would encompass all of these things I wanted to do. But the real starting point for what became Alchemical Journeys was Middlegame, that’s book one for a reason, and was the concept of the Doctrine of Ethos, which comes out of Pythagorean philosophy.
It’s not exactly as presented in the book, the real world Doctrine is a little more difficult to sum up. But at that time alchemy was not a quack activity, it was not a fringe science, alchemy was real. Alchemy was something that your science teacher would say, “No, you’re smart, you should be an alchemist.”
Alchemists are how the old magicians and philosopher-wizards reconciled the world as they knew it with the rise of scientific thought. Science didn’t destroy magic. Both have always existed. Combustion and electricity and the lever didn’t all start working the day people stopped chucking fireballs at each other. That’s silly.”Seasonal Fears (2022)
And that was fascinating to me, that we had this whole school of scientific thought that we figured out was not true and pretty much discarded overnight after having it be there for centuries. And there are all of these concepts inherent in alchemy that have a lot of interesting story material to mine, so that’s kind of what took me down that road. Plus it was an excuse to buy more books.
Well then yeah, that’s always a good reason to do anything. So on a different note, some of the imagery you use in Alchemical Journeys, I’m thinking of the scene in the Sutro Baths at the end of Middlegame when Dodger summons an entire building from the past out of light, is truly stunning. And that scene in particular has always made me long to see it on the big screen. So should the opportunity present itself, do you ever envision adapting the Alchemical Journeys series, or one of your other books, into a movie or TV show?
So I have this really weird thing as an author where I like to eat food and live in a house. I know, it’s amazing. And people don’t read. For the most part, even the bestselling book in the nation right now, number one on the New York Times list, has probably moved 5,000 copies. It’s moved fewer copies than there are students in a large high school. And what changes that is television and movies. Putting the title of a book in front of that many people’s eyes, putting the name of an author in front of that many people, will cause that work to just skyrocket. And they get a lot of money. You don’t necessarily get money for the adaptation itself, you get your money in book sales on the back end.
I know people who think that it’s selling out to allow an adaptation, but I’ll tell you, I would like to sell out. Please, someone purchase. I’d love to see my stuff on the big screen, or the small screen, or any screen, I am not picky; but part of that is I like food, and I like having medical insurance, and I live here in America so I have to pay for that. I also have cats, you may have heard them yelling at various points, and they have veterinary bills. So I am in favor of anything possible being adapted at any possible time, please give me a call. The Wayward Children books are currently under option with Paramount, and are being developed for television. Middlegame has not been optioned yet, which honestly makes sense. I mean, it’s confusing to even try to explain what it’s about.
We eventually had to start saying it was a superhero book, because it kind of is. It’s a superhero origin story if you look at the way the story’s constructed. But once something has been made, other things do tend to follow because the studios smell money in the water like sharks smell blood. So the short answer is yes please.
I know you said that Roger and Dodger’s story is the starting point of the series for a reason, but if I heard you correctly you said that the idea for Alchemical Journeys actually started with Harry and Melanie and the idea of seasonal monarchs. And on Twitter a couple of weeks ago you teased a possible third Alchemical Journeys book: Tidal Creatures.
If there’s anything you’re allowed to tell us at this point, do you have a long term plan for the series? Do you know where you’re going, or what aspect of the alchemical world you’d like to explore next?
Well, what I would really like to do in my perfect world of sunshine and zombie puppies where I get everything I want would be to write five books total: Middlegame, which was our Fire book, Seasonal Fears, which is Earth, Tidal Creatures, which is Water, Ink Pot Gods, which is Air, and then the as-of-yet untitled Book Five, the book of Aether. Which, at the time that alchemy was a respectable science rather than a discredited theory, was the fifth element. It was Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Aether, so it’s kind of Captain Planet-y where you have “and heart!” as one of the natural elements, but I promise book five will not be super heart-y.
But what determines whether or not I’m allowed to write the next book is how well each book sells. So I’m waiting to hear back on my week one numbers for Seasonal Fears to find out if I’m going to be able to keep going, I really hope I can.
Well I personally hope you do, these are amazing books. So, to allow a little spoiler, there is a brief cameo for Roger and Dodger in Seasonal Fears. And it very much seems like, even though their story is over, in this new book the Midwiches have become the wise old ones and/or mentor figures of this universe. How do you envision the books being connected going forward? Are they all going to be different stories? Are they going to continue to have these overlap points, like an alchemical MCU? Are they all going to unite at some point into one grand arc? Where do you see that going?
The MCU is actually not a bad comparison, because what connects all of those is that they happen in the same Marvel universe. I’ve done some work for Marvel, I did two years on the Ghost Spider books, which was one of the best times of my life, and I miss Gwen greatly. And one of the things about working in one of those worlds is that you have to remain aware at all times of where people are and what they’re doing.
I don’t need to know exactly what Iron Man is up to in order to write a Spider-Man story, but I do need to know if Iron Man is going to swoop in. Does it make sense that Peter would be able to pull something off without Tony noticing? And that is kind of how these books are going to go. Things have to make sense in my head as to why people are moving where, I know where everyone is all the time. But they will always be at least that little bit connected, and part of that is just rewarding readers but part of that is also rewarding me. These characters were my imaginary friends before you ever met them, and I miss them when they’re not center stage.
Well I guess that’s another question: You’ve written a lot of books, novels, novellas, short stories, everything, you’ve even worked for Marvel. So, while I’m sure this is a terrible question to ask an author, out of all of that, do you have a favorite? Is there a story or a series that you’re particularly proud of?
Well they are all my imaginary friends, but I continue to feel that Middlegame is the best thing I’ve ever written. Seasonal Fears makes me very happy, I am not downplaying that work, but Middlegame took me ten years to develop some of the authorial skills I needed to get through that story. Everything I wrote for ten years was just me trying to level up enough to pull off some of the narrative tricks I was going to need to write Middlegame. And that is very special to me.
Feed, under the Mira Grant name, is also a big favorite, because that was another book that represented a major leveling up. I had to do a huge quantity of research but, if you couldn’t tell, I’m a little bit of a nerd, which means I really like research, so it made me happy.
So when you say Middlegame took ten years of leveling up, did you always know during your career that you were working towards that book, or something like it?
Oh absolutely. If you got really bored and decided to go on an archaeological expedition through the internet, you can still find my LiveJournal, because I am that kind of internet old kids, and before I was a published author, to keep myself working when I had to make time for writing between everything else I was doing, I used to do a monthly “current projects” post. It went up on the 15th of every month, and it would tell people what I was working on and what I hoped to get to soon.
So if you go back to posts under that tag from 2007-2008, you will see references to a book called Nativity of Chance, which is what Middlegame was originally called, and you will see references to a book called Pretty Poisoned Apples, which became Seasonal Fears. And they were both showing up on that list with a status of researching. So yeah, this has always been the plan, my agent was aware.
Wow, this has been a long time in the making. I know you said that you’re waiting to hear back from the publisher but, going forward from here, have the other three potential books in Alchemical Journeys been on your mind for just as long, or were these the two core stories you wanted to get to and now you’re developing something new?
Tidal Creatures was always there, it was part of things from the beginning. Books four and five, however, required me to know what everything kind of looks like in my world. To go back to that MCU analogy, you couldn’t have known when Iron Man was made that they would find “the perfect Tony Stark,” because Robert Downey Jr. had somehow been grown in a lab to play Tony Stark, everything he had gone through before that movie was just to make him the perfect Tony, but nobody expected it. And then no one could have predicted that they would be able to repeat the trick with Captain America. In fact, most of the success of the MCU I will actually credit to Marvel’s casting division, because somehow they have managed to find the perfect actors to portray these heroes again and again and again.
But because you couldn’t say when you were writing Iron Man that Captain America was definitely going to happen, you had no way of betting on it, you couldn’t really set up the Captain America movie yet. Now once you have a couple of movies under your belt as it were, you can start making more long range plans, as we have seen Marvel very much do. And that’s kind of where I’m at now. I needed to see who Roger and Dodger would be at the end of their book, so I had to finish writing the book, and I needed to see who Harry and Melanie would be, and who the people you haven’t met yet from Tidal Creatures would be as well. And then Ink Pot Gods and the fifth book both kind of come out of who those people are when we join back up with them.
If I remember correctly Every Heart won a Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award the year it was released, basically for being so unique. So are books like that, and Middlegame too, which are really unlike what’s been done before in the genre, the stories that came to you, or have there been ones that you started writing and then realized that there may have been another author to get to it first? Basically, are the ones you’ve published the ones you always knew you wanted, or are there drafts that don’t see the light?
There are always drafts that don’t see the light for just about anything. I’m not saying you have to find a new story, because there are no new stories. We’re all telling the same six stories over and over again. I’m saying don’t roll up thinking that you’re telling a new story. Beauty and the Beast retellings are still popular, in fact I think one just came out, and there’s always a way to tell an old story in a new fashion. Wicked, the untold story of the Wicked Witch of the West, is a massive hit. And what made that work was not that it was a new story, it was that it was an innovative way of looking at an old story. So just tell the stories that you want to tell and it’ll be fine, you’ll work it out.
As to were these the stories I always knew I wanted to tell, I don’t think that’s possible. Because, and I’ve been trying really hard today to be light and for a high school audience, I’m not downplaying y’all but note that I haven’t sworn at all, and there are people who would think that was genuinely impossible for me. But we live in a racist, sexist society. Absolutely. We live in a prejudiced society. And even if you think that you have somehow managed to escape all of those prejudices, that you are a perfect person, you are wrong.
Three hundred years ago,” says Harry, suddenly disgusted. He looks at his own hands, white-skinned and strong, and scowls.”Seasonal Fears (2022)
If you go back and you read some of my very earliest work, I was using ableist slurs constantly, because I didn’t know. No one had ever told me that these words I was using were harmful. And so as soon as I learned I pulled the words way back, I’ve pretty much discontinued using all of them and I’ve apologized publicly, but that is still an error I made because of the culture I come from.
I also downplayed the importance of romance as a genre as a younger author, I would be dismissive of romance authors. That is the single biggest genre there is! That has the most readers, it has the most reach, it is an important genre. But I grew up in a world that told me women were silly and frivolous and there was only room for one woman in the room, and so I thought women were silly and frivolous. Now I knew I wasn’t silly and frivolous, so therefore I must be better than other women. I don’t believe that anymore. I had to do a lot of really hard work unpacking myself to be able to reach that point. And I think that until we have done some of that work on ourselves, we can’t know what our work is going to look like.
That does also mean that you have to allow people to grow. If somebody writes a story and it has a bad trope in it, or it has something insulting in it, okay, tell them. Communicate it with them. If they do it again once they know that it’s a bad thing, then they’re a jerk. But if they didn’t know, we can’t all know everything, it is not possible, and we live in a world that feeds us bad info constantly.
Well to look for some good info, you mentioned earlier that reading a lot was a big part of being an author. Would you say you have a favorite author, or a few favorite authors, and have any of them influenced your own work?
My favorite authors include Terry Pratchett, and if you haven’t read Discworld, you should, I think you’ll very much enjoy it. He sadly left us a few years ago but he was a giant, among the genre and among men — one of those authors that just leaves you thinking, “How did I get to share the world with this person?” Absolutely fantastic.
Peter Beagle has written quite a lot, but he manages to make my list with one book. He wrote a novel called The Last Unicorn, which was also adapted into an animated feature, and you can see that half of my work is in conversation with that book. I am still processing that book, even though I encountered it for the first time when I was like six. It is extremely deeply rooted in my psyche and we’re not getting rid of it.
Stephen King: He is probably the author I own the most books by, I have everything he’s done. My only tattoo is a quote from one of his books. I’ve loved him since I was a child and I think I will keep loving him forever.
Catherynne Valente is a very good friend of mine and she is the ultimate example of the idea that you don’t have to have a single style as an author. Every book she writes is so dramatically dissimilar from the book before that it would be possible to believe that a different author had done each of them. And that is astonishing to me, I don’t understand how she does it.
And then there’s James Tiptree Jr., who decided to demonstrate that science fiction is sexist as heck by having a male pen name. She won huge numbers of awards before people found out that she was a woman, and her short fiction is still elegant and beautifully constructed on a level that no one has really matched since.
Wow, those all sound amazing. If I may ask, what’s the quote in the tattoo?
“Go then, there are other worlds than these.” It’s from a book called The Gunslinger, and it is intentionally misquoted because the original quote is, “Go then, Gunslinger, there are other worlds than these.” But I just didn’t think I needed to be that specific if it was going on my arm forever, and I know what it means. I spent 20 years trying to decide if I wanted a tattoo, and what it was going to be, and Stephen King won out.
To go all the way back to your career as an author in general, do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
So the first story I ever wrote, so far as I’m aware, was when I was about three, and I had just kind of figured out attacking the typewriter. I did have a typewriter, one that weighed more than I did, but a typewriter. And it was about me having a lovely afternoon with the My Little Ponies in Pony Land.
That’s a fantastic origin story.
Fanfiction does come before all else.
For sure. So as you said about the typewriter, in the biography section on your website, you describe your childhood as “somehow managing to survive long enough to acquire a typewriter, a reasonable grasp of the English language, and the desire to combine the two.” For any aspiring young writers reading this today, did you ever envision yourself, back then, being where you are now, and how did you get there? What advice would you give to any other kids with typewriters out there?
Envision? No. Desperately want? Yes. There is that meme that goes around periodically that says “If you could talk to your 15 year old self would they believe where you are now?” And it’s supposed to be both inspirational and a little bit negging. You know, things like, would they believe that you’re actually 40? Would they believe that this has happened? Would they believe that you’re not married?
So this is what I always wanted and this is what I was always working toward. I think if I could talk to my 15 year old self she’d be annoyed that I was writing for the X-Men for like five minutes and I’m not currently writing for the X-Men, what the heck is wrong with you? Because that is the thing that I wanted most in all the world at her age. My biggest piece of advice is that you have to write and you have to read and you have to remember that basically anything else that anyone tells you is bull.
If I were to tell you this is the exact way to have a writing career, I would be telling you how to have a writing career that starts in 2008. And it is 2022 now, the rules have changed. The playing field has changed. But you have to write, and you will get better with every word you write, I promise. It doesn’t feel that way, but it’s like doing weights in gym. If you lift five pounds a day every day for six months, then one day you’re going to pick up that ten pound weight and it’s not going to feel that heavy.
All literature is a form of alchemy, turning letters into words into messages from the past, like chucking bottles into the tide. So by that definition, all authors are alchemists, and ought to change their titles.”Seasonal Fears (2022)
You have to read because it is very easy for any of us, legit any of us, to crawl into our own heads and only think about the things that we already think are important. But when we do that we don’t get new perspectives and we don’t get new stories, and that’s not good for you if you’re going to be an author. Every couple of years we get somebody who rolls up on the science fiction or fantasy scene with their “groundbreaking new book” that does something that “no one has ever done before,” and the people who have been here the whole time have actually done that 90 times. And that doesn’t make a whole lot of friends.
Now if they’re already famous then of course they’ll probably get praised by the media anyway. Just imagine: “Chris Evans, Captain America, writes groundbreaking new vampire novel where vampires sparkle in the sunlight!” But you really do need to understand the genre that you’re planning to work in. People will tell you that you have to write every day, but that advice is ableist, classist, and wrong. People will tell you that certain kinds of stories are played out or dead, and they are wrong. You can always keep telling stories. Humans have an infinite capacity for story. Just tell the story you want to tell, and it will all work out in the end.