Women in Genre Fiction – Karen Miller

Thanks to Barry and Dave for agreeing to let me induldge my geeky fan-girlness with this series of interviews.

I approached them with this vague idea that I want to chat to published authors in genre fiction, but I’d like to concentrate on women in genre fiction, being of that persuasion myself.  They loved the idea and gave me the go-ahead. 

I immediately popped onto the Twitter HiveMind to ask for some further ideas who to contact.  I already knew who I wanted to interview to kick this series of interviews off.  Of course it had to be Karen Miller who I’ve come to admire greatly as an author and as a genuinely warm and approachable human bean. 

I am happy to say that she agreed – phew – and so here she is, without further delay and in her own words:

Photo credit: Mary GT Webber

I remember way back in 2007 when I picked up Innocent Mage here in the UK,  how blown away I was by your writing.  I haunted your website and became all chatty with you via my livejournal account.  You were always very gracious to all your readers and commentators.  Did you have any “training” or tips from your publishers on how to handle being in the public eye?

 Well, thank you! I try not to be a jackass wherever possible. Don’t always manage it, of course. *g* No, I’ve not received any formal PR  training, but having had my own bookshop I did get to meet quite a few authors and I learned a lot from watching them. Some were absolutely brilliant with both the public and behind the scenes types (David Gemmell, we really really miss you) and others were — well, let’s just say they were prime object lessons on What Not To Do. At the end of the day, I always try to remember that I am beyond privileged to do what I do, and that without the support of the reading public I’d be cactus. Being a writer doesn’t make me better than everyone else. It just makes me slighty loony. Besides, I think general courtesy is one of the keystones of a civilised society. 

Now, several years on from being published and becoming well known as both a fantasy and science fiction author, do you feel different to the author who started out?

 Yes and no. It’s very odd. In some respects I have a lot more confidence, but then again in others I’m still the freaked-out woobie who thinks she can’t write for toffee. I think the main difference now is that when I do have one my moments of Oh hell I can’t do this at all, I’m a fraud and I’ll be found out  (and most writers have these moments, it kind of comes with the territory) I can take a deep breath, think of the truly extraordinary reader mail I’ve received, and use that as a life-preserver until I’m feeling sane again. Having ridden this roller coaster a few years now, I can recognise the downswings and trust I’ll feel better again soon. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to walking into a shop and seeing books with my name on the shelf. And when I see trade ads for my books I tend to get a little light-headed too. I do think I’m a more polished writer now, I think I’ve improved. But there’s always room to do better.

 You have done 4 fantasy series now, am I correct? (Godspeaker, Kingmaker/Kinbreaker, Rogue Agent and Fisherman’s Children).  Yet I’ve read that Orbit has commissioned a new series from you, provisionally titled as a series: The Tarnished Crown quintet.  Firstly, are we allowed a vague idea what it’s about and secondly: how many clones do you have working for you, helping you write?

Yes,that’s right. And yes, the next big project is The Tarnished Crown quintet. I start writing that next year. I’m finishing the Mage quartetprequel now, A Blight of Mages, and then there’s Rogue Agent #4, and then I sink my teeth into researching TC. Can’t wait for that! At this point I can’t say too much about it. But the theme of the story is that power corrupts, even with the best intentions, and that every ruler’s crown is tarnished. It’s the biggest, most complex story I’ve ever attempted, in terms of characters and geographical breadth and depth, and narrative construction. Scares the pants off me thinking about it, but in a good way. I have lots of notes and ideas popping at random moments. We’ll be following the fortunes of good guys and bad guys and guys who live in shades of grey. Political machinations, romance, tragedy. All the good stuff!

A for the clones thing, yeah, it’s been a bit intense the last little while. Basically I decided that I had to focus all my energies on establishing myself in the genre. Kind of like studying for an honours degree. So the last 5 years, and the last 2 in particular, I put my life on hold and didn’t do much else but write. The work has paid off, but I really made myself very tired. I’m still recovering. And while I think it was the right thing to do, I did underestimate how tough it would be. I’m almost out of the woods now, though, and very much  looking forward to easing back on the pace a bit.

 Can you tell us how you came about writing the Star Wars novels?

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I saw the original film while I was in high school. So when I made my first professional sale I dropped a line to the series editor, saying how much I loved Star Wars and if ever they were looking for new authors I’d love to be considered. We had a conversation about it, which was great, but nothing came of it. I thought, Oh well, at least I gave it a shot, and moved on. Then out of the blue I got an email asking if I’d like to write a couple of novels set in the Clone Wars era and of course said yes. When the other writer involved in the project, the inimitable Karen Traviss, was unable to do the last book in the 5 book arc it was offered to me, and of course again I said yes. So that’s how I ended up writing 3 Star Wars novels.

What is it like, in the trenches, writing tie-in novels like this?  I have heard things like imposing series bibles, strict editors and scary fans…

 I had a wonderful time doing those books. For a start, I had Karen T holding my hand, guiding me through a lot of the processes. Her help was invaluable. Secondly, I received nothing but fabulous support from the Del Rey editor, Shelly Shapiro, and the Lucasfilm publishing guru Sue Rostoni, as well as the other involved people at Lucasfilm. They were nothing but supportive, and gave me astonishing freedom to tell the stories I wanted to tell, in the way I wanted to tell them. Being a character-driven writer I spend more time than is usual in a Star Wars novel delving into those people and their lives and relationships. That’s rocked the boat a bit for some readers, who are more used to narrative/action-driven storytelling. But I always knew that would happen, so I was prepared for some of the negative feedback. The thing about Star Wars — about any kind of tie-in work — is that you’re writing for an audience that is at once niche, and yet terribly diverse. Every fan relates to the source material in a particular and personal way, and some fans can get really, really protective of it. I completely understand that, because I get protective of the stories I love too. But it does mean that no matter what you do, as a tie-in writer, you will never please all the fans all the time. And the ones that you don’t please can be very vocal and sometimes very angry. In some cases that anger tips over into totally inappropriate behaviour but that really is the minority reaction. For the most part, Star Wars fans —  like all fans — are truly passionate and delightful people. The ones who’ve enjoyed my Star Wars work have really enjoyed it and have been kind enough to tell me so. The ones who don’t like it say so too, and that’s fine. There’s no such thing as a right or wrong opinion. Every take on a story is valid for that particular reader. Writing for Star Wars has really enriched me, and I’ll never regret doing it.

You have garnered  starred reviews in important publications such as Publishers Weekly and librarians have contacted you about being shortlisted for Annual Reader Awards, amongst other things.  How important are these accolades to you? Do they keep you grounded or do you ever find yourself getting a bit flighty and egotistical?

Having someone without a vested interested in your ego praising the work is a lovely thing, I’ll never deny it. But I think it’s really important not to get too hung up on those kinds of external issues. I work very hard at keeping a level head, and do my very best not to get carried away by either praise or criticism. It’s too easy to get caught up in despair or elation and that can get in the way of the work. I’ve been praised and lambasted for the same book in one morning and if you’re not careful, that kind of thing can make you crazy. I try to remember that every opinion about my work is valid, and that no matter how hard I try I’ll never please all the people all the time. If I know I’ve done my best, if I know I’ve worked my hardest to tell the best story I can in the best way I know how, then that has to be enough. I can’t control whether someone will like my work or not, all I can control is how I respond to the feedback. As a writer, all you can ask of a reader — be they a reviewer, someone on an awards panel or  a member of the book buying public —  is that they give you a fair shake. And if they do, and they still don’t like what you’ve done, so be it.

 What was it like visiting the States and going to the Romantic Times Convention? 

I love the USA. I think it’s a great country, and some of my favourite people in the world live there. The Romantic Times convention was wonderful. I love that it’s a convention that focuses on readers, not so much on writers. Without readers, writers are dead in the water. Having the chance to hang out with people who love books, love reading, is a glorious thing. It reminds me of the best part of my bookseller days. Barring unforeseen catastrophe I’ll be back to the RT convention next year, in LA, this time teaching some workshops as well as appearing on panels. I can’t wait.

I know you are a geeky fan of various TV shows, movies and comic books.  If you had to choose any of these to write for, be it scripts or tie-in novels (not including Star Wars and Stargate) which would it be? (Am hoping you say Supernatural!)

 Actually, right now, there isn’t anything I’d kill to write for, tie-in or script wise. I haven’t stopped being a geeky fan — I’ll be a geeky fan till I drop dead, I think! — but most of the stuff I’m currently geeking out over is stuff I’m happy just to watch and love. It breaks my heart to say it, but Supernatural kind of lost me in Season 5. I was so desperately disappointed with how the story arc played out that I’m feeling a bit burned by it. I’ll watch Season 6, but I’m feeling very nervous. For me, when it comes to stories, I have to believe in those stories and I have to believe the storytellers believe too. But last season Supernatural so thoroughly smashed through the wall separating story and audience that in a weird way it stopped being real for me. And I don’t know if I can get that suspension of disbelief back again. I guess we’ll have to see.

I grew up reading a lot of fantasy, mostly by male authors, purely because that was all there was to be had in libraries at the time.  I don’t know if it’s my imagination but it seems as if there has been this huge shift across the board for genre writers: that more women are being published, especially in the fantasy genre?  Do you think this is the case?

I think there has been, when it comes to the speculative fiction genre. Women have always been strong in crime/mystery and of course have dominated romance. But in spec fic, yes, more and more women are being published — although it’s still skewed more to fantasy than sf. Women writers are especially strong in urban fantasy, which I think has become women’s answer to hard boiled noir fiction that has traditionally been dominated by male writers. I think it’s great to see so many women authors in the field, providing an alternate perspective. The best thing about speculative fiction is that it’s a Big Tent genre … but for so long that tent was skewed towards the male writer and the male point of view. I still think there’s progress to be made in representing women in straight science fiction — I recently saw a publisher’s ad touting some 6 new sf books and not one was written by a woman — but on balance, yes, we have a larger presence and that’s to be celebrated.

It has been commented on all over the web (example)in the past that female writers in genre fiction are being published but so few of them are being acknowledged when it comes to receiving prizes and accolades.  Is this something you feel strongly about?

Well, this is a tricky one. In answering it’s so easy to come across as whining. But yes, I have to say that on the whole, while publishers are being way more proactive and supportive of women writers — my publishers Orbit and Harper Collins being perfect and fabulous examples — when it comes to commentary and recognition, women writers are still fighting an uphill battle. So much of the discourse is dominated by the male voice and the male perspective and some truly terrific women writers — women like Kate Elliott and the late Kage Baker, to name but two — do not ever receive the attention and accolades their work so richly deserves. So very often women writers and their writing is belittled and marginalised by that male voice/perspective — and in very public forums like Britian’s SFX magazine. But this isn’t a problem confined to the spec fic genre — it’s merely a reflection of our culture at large. Despite huge strides women are still far too often rendered invisible. And when we point this out we are told to sit down and shut up, that the misogyny is in our imaginations, that there’s no  such thing as sexism any more.  And as any woman will tell you, that’s a crock of bullcrap.

Battlestar Galactica Femme Fatales

I think things are improving in the book world, but nowhere does it remain more prevalent than in the media game, most especially in tv and particularly in spec fic tv. You do get exceptions, of course — the reimagined Battlestar Galactica is a superlative example of women writers, producers and characters being treated with absolute respect and professionalism and equality. And Warehouse 13 is doing wonderful things with its female characters.  So is Fringe. On the flip side, though, you get a show like Stargate Universe which is so horrifically male-skewed, so blatantly sexist, I feel like tearing my hair out. And I still get depressed  when I look at the production credits and see so many men and so few women involved behind the scenes as writers, producers and directors. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still not good enough.

And I feel the same way about the representation of women in the spec fic writing domain too. When you look at new anthologies, for example, and there’s not a woman’s name to be seen on the table of contents, or if there is a lone woman she’s not considered worthy of being mentioned on the cover — that’s getting very old and tired. Or like I said, a full page ad touting a new raft of sf books and not one written by a woman. And when you look at the names of the nominees on the Hugo lists and again, hardly a woman’s name to be found. You’d think in the 21st century we’d be past this nonsense but we’re not. And you only have to look at the hostile response to publishers like Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet press, when she raises the question of bias in the field, to see that the battle for recognition and support of women writers is a long way from over.Having said all that, though, some of the most wonderful and supportive reader mail I’ve received has been from male readers. So I can’t help but wonder if the problem lies not within the reading public at large, but within many of its male self-appointed gatekeepers, some of whom are incredibly hostile to women writers, their success and their particular point of view.

You are part of this plethora of incredibly talented authors coming from the Southern Hemisphere / Australasia.  I imagine all of you meeting up on weekends, on this secluded private island, to hang around and talk books and writing.  I’m wrong about this image, aren’t I? But do you have the opportunity to chat to people like Trudi Canavan, Margo Lanagan, Glenda Larke and Rowena Cory Daniels?

Unfortunately we all live a long way away from each other, Australia being a huge country with a small population, so at best we catch up once or twice a year at a convention. Which is a real pity, because writing is a lonely game and some moral support from our fellow-inmates of the writing asylum is always welcome. But there’s always email, and that helps. I’m particularly fortunate in that the uber-talented Glenda Larke is a good friend, and always a staunch shoulder to lean on when I find myself going under for the third time.

Finally, what is the most helpful advice anyone has ever given you about writing and similarly, what is the worst ever advice?

The best advice I ever got was from a lecturer at university, who told me not to give up. The next best piece of advice was from Fiona McIntosh, who told me to work really hard the first few years and get as many books as I could onto the shelves. I’ve never received any bad advice, but I’ve certainly received negative feedback along the way that could have stopped me in my tracks if I’d let it. I’ve been told I wrote like bad fanfiction, that my ideas would never sell, that my publisher only published crap (and so, by extension, was my work) — all potentially hurtful and destructive comments. It’s really important in this game to filter out the negative feedback and look beyond the words to the motivation behind them. If someone is criticising you from a place of support, then you listen and take it on board. But when that’s not the case you need to tune it out. Writing is a naked occupation. Writers bare their souls, wear their hearts on their sleeve. It’s so easy to be crushed, even when the advice is genuine and well-meaning. You have to learn to be objective and question what you’re told, and not let other people’s fears and doubts and jealousies creep in to undermine you. Believe in yourself, have faith in what you’re doing, and be selective in who you let in. 

**

I can’t thank Karen enough for this fantastic interview.  I hope you guys have enjoyed reading it.  Stay tuned for more Women in Genre Fiction Interviews in the upcoming weeks.

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One comment

  1. A great interview! It’s lovely to hear Karen talk about her work and I’m excited about her new series.

    Look forward to reading more interviews with women in genre fiction. Excited to see who else you have in store for us!

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