Women In Genre Fiction – Tricia Sullivan
Posted by Liz on October 4, 2010
I “met” Tricia through a mutual friend, Karen Mahoney. Karen gushed at me so often about Tricia’s writing so that when Orbit UK bought the rights to Tricia’s new novel, Lightborn (out later this month of October) I couldn’t resist getting in touch to chat to her about her writing and every other thing I could think of.
1. Thanks so much for coming out to play. Now, we’ve never met, but we do have some friends in common so I’d love for you to chat to us firstly, about who you are and your publishing career to date.
I’m 42, I come from New Jersey and now live in Shropshire with my partner and our three kids. I started publishing SF in 1995, and wrote steadily until I started having children in 2002. I’ve published seven SF novels now, and I also did a high fantasy trilogy under a pseudonym about ten years ago. For a good seven years my life revolved around my kids 24/7, and I went through crazy contortions to get my writing done. I am coming out of that phase now and picking up some momentum.
2. Let’s start with Lightborn which is your newest novel from Orbit. Can you elaborate on the plot for us a bit?
OK, so there’s this technology called shine. It acts directly on the brain using beams of light. Shine can do anything that psychopharmaceuticals can do, and more, and better. It can improve the brain’s performance and enhance perception in all sorts of ways, and it’s a huge industry in this alternate-America of 2004. Everyone becomes responsive to shine sometime during puberty, except our heroine Roksana, who is 17 and completely unaffected.
Then, in the town of Los Sombres where Roksana lives, the system that regulates who gets what shine where and when, crashes. The AIs that run the regulatory Field have run amok, and the people of Los Sombres are unprotected from whatever shine may come out of the lights anywhere in the city. A quarantine is imposed, trapping the afflicted inhabitants. Mayhem ensues. People are mentally and physically damaged and society rapidly dissolves. Roksana is stuck there with her father, who is a shine researcher and determined to make things right.
The main story kicks off two years later, when the US military have decided that the ongoing problem of Los Sombres is best fixed by military intervention, so they start moving into the quarantine zone where the story’s second protagonist, Xavier, lives. Xavier is fourteen but has kept shine from affecting him thanks to a drug that inhibits the onset of puberty. With the military dropping bombs and the drug running out, Xavier decides to go into Los Sombres to get more. He’ll do anything to escape going crazy, especially with rescue by the military so close at hand.
But when Xavier gets to Los Sombres, the city is not what he expected it to be. There seems to be a hidden order helping people survive, and Roksana is at the center of it.
And that’s all I can say for now! It gets pretty weird after that. The protagonists may be young, but the situations they are in are not your typical YA fare.
3. A dreaded question, I know, but where did the idea for this one come from?
I thought I should write some short fiction . To loosen up and get over my inhibitions I started trying to think of what a corny SF story would be like, and I wrote a couple of pages just to have fun. There was an image of this guy crashing some sort of sled vehicle in an exotic environment, and having these codes in his eyes, these rays of light. And nobody knows who he is or where he comes from. There was an image of a dessicated, ruined city being raided for artefacts by people who lived on the fringes. I wrote down what came into my head without any particular thought or investment. It was kind of…quirky? And clearly not a short story.
With some embarassment, I showed the pages to my agent together with a lot of what I thought was much more sensible and better-developed material, and she liked these odd imagistic beginnings. So I started working on it. I didn’t want to go into all the other-planet worldbuilding, and I thought it would be more challenging if I transposed what I had to a near-past USA, a sort of alternate-contemporary, which led to many, many issues. But those pages were the seed.
4. You are American born, but you live in the UK with your family. Do you feel that writing science fiction here and publishing it in the UK has estranged you from your US cousins, or do you think that the UK is where it’s at, at the moment, looking at the cutting edge sci-fi being published currently?
My personal experience is that it’s difficult-bordering-on-impossible to get SF published in the US, and has been for some years now. I’ve been writing SF because my agent and publisher have supported me doing so; that would not be the case were I in the US. I would have to write something else if I wanted to sell my work.
5. Let’s talk about social media and the internet. You live in a remote(ish) area and I know from chatting to you via LiveJournal that you use the internet to interface with writers and readers alike. Do you think social media, journals, blogs and websites have had an impact on you as a writer and how you approach your writing?
I got broadband in 2006 and it saved me from a really punishing period of isolation. For years I was broke, sleep-deprived, behind on deadline, and physically isolated. I had babies and toddlers literally on my tits all day. When I finally got on Livejournal and started to connect with people, even though it was only a little, it was a lifesaver.
I doubt I’m even aware of the full extent of the impact of the internet on me, because it’s always developing. One of the big things that happened while I was writing Lightborn was RaceFail, which centered on Livejournal. This was the first discussion of race and representation in SFF that I’d encountered. I think it set me back about four months on my work.
For anyone reading who didn’t follow Racefail, basically what began as a reader talking back to an author about the way POC had been represented in that author’s work, turned into a heated and widespread discussion of cultural appropriation, white privilege, representation of minorities in SFF, and how to behave online if you are an author. Because the discussion was so diffuse across many journals and blogs, it took me a long time to come to grips with what was happening. I’d thought I was all good and OK and not a racist, but the more I read, the more disturbed I became about myself and my assumptions. I wondered if I’d have handled the discussion any better than some of the white writers I’d seen online. I’d like to think that I would have, but who can say?
Since most of the characters in Lightborn are POC, and since I’d taken huge speculative liberties with Native American ideas, I had the urge to throw the whole book away and start over. It was already in draft, so that was not an option; but in light of these new insights being offered online, I seriously questioned everything I was doing with POC in the book. I still feel uneasy about cultural appropriation. I’m bound to make mistakes, but I don’t ever want to be complacent.
What is crucial for me about internet-based discussions is that the usual gatekeepers are not in full power. I didn’t even realize the extent of their control until some hithertofore-unheard voices began to get through. Now the gatekeepers of publishing are becoming visible as such–and these gatekeepers are not only agents, editors, marketing people, sales teams, book buyers, and writers, but also the overarching system in which we all function. En masse, even readers are gatekeepers in the sense that sales drive the whole machine. So that an individual person may or may not be particularly racist (or sexist, or whatever-ist) but the system and the overculture certainly is. To me, that fact calls for individual response from each of us, where we stand and with whatever power we may have. Otherwise we contribute to the problem.
For me, the palpable awareness of readers out there who are not passive increases my sense of responsibility. It’s good for readers to become writers and writers, readers–for the response to flow both ways–but it’s very new to me as a person who grew up before the internet got going. I am on a learning curve for sure.
6. You are well known in the sci-fi industry by astute readers, having been lauded all over the place as someone who has tremendous talent. And here I specifically point to your reviews in SFX and Locus, who are notoriously difficult mags to get good reviews in. Does that help with the pressure or does that increase the pressure when you sit down and write something new?
I’m pretty sure that people outside the inner circle of UK SF have pretty much never heard of me, so zero pressure there! The reviews and the recognition by the SF in-crowd, those things are wonderful to have because they tell me that I must be doing something right, and I feel encouraged to keep going. But reviews don’t equal sales, so the pressure comes from questions like ‘How do I write something that people will actually like?’ and ‘How do I articulate these knotty and odd things that are bugging me?’ Figuring out how to do that is where it gets sticky, because my ideas usually don’t fall into nice easy-to-market packages.
7. You’ve been shortlisted for various awards and you’ve won an Arthur C Clarke Award for Dreaming In Smoke. Was that a long term goal of yours? And did you find winning the Award boosted your confidence?
I can be a little clueless sometimes. I didn’t know anything about the Clarke until after I’d won it. I’d only been in Britain a few years. When I learned that Dreaming in Smoke was nominated I didn’t pay much attention or ask questions about the award. I’d tried my best but didn’t think the book had turned out very well, so I thought the nomination was a fluke. Like, they had to make up the numbers or something. I was totally shocked when my name was read out. Afterward, of course, I realised with embarassment that the Arthur C. Clarke Award is a big honour.
Of course I’ll always feel pride and affection about the Clarke. It’s a wonderful thing to have in my resume. Writing is a solitary, internal process, so any kind of external validation is precious.
8. I’ve just checked on the winners of the last ten years’ Clarke Awards and I must admit to being shocked. Nine male winners, one female winner. Something about this quota strikes me as wrong. I’ve double checked and female authors have been shortlisted, which is nice, yet no one else has won. I find this peculiar. Where do you stand on this perceived “unequality”?
I went and looked it up and here’s what I found: gender parity in the judges has been spotty over time, but in recent years there’s generally pretty good ratio of women:men on the juries. One would think this would mean more women on the shortlist and winning awards. Not so.
For the first ten years from the award’s inception in 1987 until 1996, the genders were balanced, five female winners and five male. Between 1997-2006 there were three female winners out of ten (Mary Doria Russell, Gwyneth Jones, and me) and between 2006-2010 there have been no female winners. The shortlist since 2000 has included Gwyneth Jones a whole bunch of times, Sheri Tepper, Sarah Hall, Lydia Millet, Jan Morris, Liz Williams, Audry Niffeneger, me, Elizabeth Moon, Connie Willis, Justina Robson twice, Octavia Butler, Mary Gentle, and Kathleen Ann Goonan. Yet, since 2003 there has been only one year with more than one female author on the ballot. What are the odds of a woman being chosen when the judges’s shortlist is 80% male or more?
I do not know why this is the case, but I wonder whether, with science fiction declining greatly in the US, there may not be enough women playing the SF game right now. Only the most successful writers can survive in this climate, and that probably means women are being forced out at a higher rate than men. Without much input from women in North America or Australia, the burden may be falling on UK SF writers. We have a strong crop of men in writing SF in the UK now, and of course we have Karen Traviss and Jaine Fenn doing very well with commercial SF. But on the more literary side, only Gwyneth Jones has had recent recognition with many nominations and a win–and she’s achieved this despite the fact that she divides her energy with her alter ego, Ann Halam. Liz Williams’ work tends to be regarded as fantasy despite its cool SF elements; same with Stephanie Swainston. Sadly, Pat Cadigan hasn’t published an SF novel in nearly ten years. Justina and I have been dealing with pregnancies and babies and toddlers–I can’t speak for her, but for myself: been wrecked, for years. Brain and body and time, seriously drained. In this country we have women like Claire Weaver and Heather Bradshaw and I’m sure there are many others publishing short fiction, and abroad Aliette de Bodard looks like she’s going to be a major force. Still, in SF there aren’t enough women to fill in the gaps when one steps back for whatever reason.
And of course, since 2001 China Mieville has won three times. That does skew things toward the boys. But he has won with two fantasies and what is purported to be a crime novel, so that rather stretches the idea of what a science fiction prize is all about. I’m not sure why Stephanie Swainston’s work or Cathryn M. Valente’s Palimpset isn’t received as SF on the same basis as China’s, for example–or is it? I don’t know.
I’m guessing that literary novels employing SF ideas are more likely to be recognized than urban fantasy–which has loads of female authors–because science fiction ideas have wormed their way into the mainstream and now seep into literary fiction. The problem then becomes, where do the new ideas come from?
It seems to me that SF as a genre is paradoxially attached to its own history; it’s a literature of the future that tends to be self-referential, which drags it into its own past. New ideas and different viewpoints are very much needed. I came to SF through an older brother, and in those days it was taken for granted that SF is a boys club and if they give you a pass to the secret clubhouse, you should just accept it without question. I hope younger women know better; I hope they write their way through SF and out the other side like superfocused hellhounds.
As for the winners: I have never been privy to any of the details of what goes on when the judges get together. I know that my work had at least two strong advocates on the jury the year that I won, because they both told me so afterwards. Both are women, both feminists. I had the feeling at the time that there was a flavour of girl vs. boy that year and I never found out the details, but I got the sense that I’d been somehow forced through against the objection of some of the jury. You want to know something, though? Instead of asking myself what that was all about, I simply took this as a sign that my work wasn’t good enough to speak for itself and win over the entire jury irrespective of gender. It never occurred to me to question the criteria of ‘good’ when it comes to SF. I took it for granted that ‘harder is better’ (and the double-entendre that goes with it). I just thought: Damn it, Sullivan. You’ve got to get harder.
I don’t think this way anymore, by the way. Since having kids, my view of womanhood has changed considerably. I’m conscious of the fact that my concerns are different from classically ‘masculine’ concerns, and are inadequately handled by much of the SF that is out there by male authors. If I want SF that truly appeals to me, I have to hope for more women to come into the field. In the same way, we need more POC…well, really any POC would be nice, actually.
As with racism, I think sexism nowadays is often unconscious. People won’t say to themselves ‘I won’t try that book because it’s by a woman,’ but they will say, ‘I won’t try that book because I like the ones with x, y, and z in them and this book has got j and m.’ And how can you argue with that? People can and do read what they want to. But I think that if you are a white male and everything you read is written by a white male, then it might be worth asking yourself if you shouldn’t consider expanding your tastes somewhat. Some tastes are acquired, but you can’t acquire a taste for something that isn’t on the shelves. (See ‘gatekeepers’, above).
9. Do you think that the judges sometimes – in literary competitions, no matter the genre – go for the more obvious choice when faced with a shortlist as they would rather not back the dark horse?
Honestly, on this subject your guess is as good as mine. I’ve never so much as discussed the matter with someone who has been a judge and I don’t know any of the psychological theory involved. I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. I suppose it’s human nature to do what’s easier, but I’d also like to hope that a good judge takes his or her responsibilities seriously enough to override that impulse. After all, we have awards like the BSFA which allow for a popular vote.
9. Onto less serious things now! I notice from your bio that you used to do martial arts and still do it on and off and that your partner, Steve, is still active. Do you think your training as martial artist has affected the way you write i.e. more focus and drive?
It has affected the way I think about the world. I used to be (and a great many of the martial artists I still run into seem to be still) a fantasist in my approach. For many people martial arts become a way out of the disorder and disappointment of real life, an escape into a better world. Unfortunately the alternate world of martial arts isn’t rooted in reality; the practices have been fabricated by the teachers of the arts. The taught practices that typify martial arts (and self-defense) are very attractive to imaginative people. They dovetail beautifully with SF and fantasy ideals, but unfortunately their training methods are equally speculative/wishful at their foundations. There is no real fighting, and so there’s no reality check.
It is very painful when you put in a lot of effort and get to a certain level, and believe a fighting system ‘works’ only to find out it doesn’t. I mean, it doesn’t, bigtime. Then you find out that if you want to be able to defend yourself, to fight, whatever, that all you’ve got to rely on is YOU. And training becomes about turning yourself into a person who can deal with rough situations: physically, psychologically, and hopefully with a bit of skill.
For me as a writer the takehome point out of all of this is about not closing my eyes to what is real, not pulling the wool over my own eyes and believing some bullshit that’s in front of me just because the culture validates it. That’s a continual challenge.
The kind of training I do now–and I only do a little bit–isn’t dependent on a teacher but is learned through experience. My partner, Steve Morris, works with professional MMA fighters and he trains weekend warriors like me using the exact same approach. Fight training is extremely challenging and can be genuinely brutal, which is why I only dabble! So you could say that training keeps me grounded. Literally.
10. Having read some of your other interviews, I noticed that you commented on how music played an important role in your writing. Do you set up playlists for each book or do you just have to have music – any music – playing in the background?
Back when I did those interviews just listening to a CD on my laptop instead of cassette was a big technological leap! But when the rest of the world was downloading music and setting up playlists, I was going through a housing crisis that left me with only a few CDs and no money to buy more. So I learned to write without music for the most part. Now I have an i-Tunes account but use it mostly for training, not writing—it’s all super up-tempo, Black-Eyed Peas, stuff like that. I love Missy Elliott but if she’s on when I’m working I start thinking about the words.
One day I maybe I will be able to spend more time and money, and then you’ll hear me going on and on about music. I miss it.
11. What can we look forward to from you after Lightborn?
I’m messing around with several things on spec. Right now I’m finishing an urban fantasy that seems to be YA (not 100% sure). If it sells, I have a whole series in mind. It has Muay Thai fighting, shapeshifting, and just a tiny bit of SF slipped in, sneakily I think. I am not done with SF! But I need the right sort of idea to do an SF novel–I won’t write it just because that’s what I’m supposed to do.
13. Finally, what is that nugget of advice you received as an aspiring writer that made you go out and do it and what is your advice to aspiring sci-fi writers out there?
What was said to me, what kicked off my ‘career’, came from my ex back in 1993. I can’t remember his exact words but it was a slightly-more-polite version of ‘Shit or get off the pot.’
To writers who are not-so-experienced, I would say, look, writing is hard and often seemingly without reward, but it’s only energy. You spend it, the next day you get more, as long as you are alive. So if you have this inclination, then use it. Respond to what the world throws at you. It’s better to direct your energy toward your own original vision than to be relegated to a life of consumption. Don’t let yourself be squashed down and made smaller.
What a fantastic set of answers to my questions – Tricia, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer them. Keep an eye out for Tricia’s new novel Lightborn, which is out later this month. Find Tricia’s website here and if you’re on twitter, do pester her a bit @trishsullivan68