Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Australian Author Karen Miller Answers Five Questions

The writing career of prolific Australian author Karen Miller kicked off in 2005, with the publication of her first novel, The Innocent Mage, an epic fantasy in the traditional mould. Since then, she’s published a further fifteen novels: four more in the world of The Innocent Mage, a trilogy (the Godspeaker trilogy) in a second epic fantasy universe, three novels in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, two in Fandemonium’s Stargate SG-1 line, and four more fantasy novels—these with a humorous and Edwardian tone—as K.E. Mills, of which the latest is Wizard Undercover.

This time out, your not-so-humble correspondent isn’t the one doing all the talking. Karen Miller herself graciously agreed to answer a few questions at length about her novels, writing for media properties, and feminism and the Australian epic fantasy market.

I should warn you, we ran a bit on the long side. So rather than make you listen to all my OPINIONS on Miller’s work (and have to confess that I, er, haven’t read half of those sixteen novels yet) before we get to the actual interview, how about we just skip ahead to the good bits right now?

First question. Since I’m talking to you for an explicitly feminist column, and since two of your books (Empress and The Riven Kingdom) made the 2007 honor list for the Tiptree award, I want to open by asking: do you see yourself as a feminist writer? What in particular do you think appealed to the Tiptree jurors about those books?

KM: I’d say I’m a writer who happens to be a feminist. I think it’s a big mistake to write fiction while standing on a soapbox. I believe that fiction’s primary function is to entertain the reader. That doesn’t mean a novelist can’t address various themes and issues in the story—can’t challenge a few assumptions and a troubling status quo—but if you write fiction for the purpose of addressing an agenda, the fiction suffers. Readers get the feeling they’re being lectured at, not entertained, and you’ve lost them. And since, in general, I think you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, honouring the intent of the exercise—telling an entertaining story—comes first for me, and while I’m doing that I hope I can offer a reimagined view of the world, where women are more than damsels in distress or the tits-and-arse course of the storytelling menu.

As for the Tiptree judges… I suppose that in Hekat and Rhian, [LB: main characters in Empress and The Riven Kingdom] we’ve got two very strong but different women. They’re both struggling against male domination; they’re both fighting for the right to be free of violence and control. They both have men in their lives who support them, and men who must be defeated so that they can be free. They forge their own paths, bravely facing the personal and societal obstacles that stand in their way. How successful they are and what they must sacrifice to reach their respective goals is the heart of the story. So while there are some very strong male characters in the Godspeaker trilogy, and they have important personal journeys, it’s these female characters who drive the story. And that’s not quite the norm for epic fantasy, so I think that might be why they attracted the Tiptree judges’ attention. It was certainly a huge compliment to make the honor list.

Second question! You’ve written for both the Stargate and Star Wars franchises as well as your original fiction. There are obvious constraints involved in working in an established universe (and much as I like Star Wars myself, I find it a touch conservative). Did you ever feel limited by your material? And how did you find fan reaction?

KM: Actually, I believe there are always limits. When you’re writing for publication, and when you’re looking to satisfy as many people as you can with the story you’re telling—the dreaded C word, commercial—there are limits. Absolutely, a writer is free to write anything s/he wants to write, say whatever s/he wants in whatever way s/he wants to. That’s the magic and power of writing.

But when you’re writing for publication, there is an extra ingredient added, and that’s the audience. And a writer seeking publication must take into account the target audience. A writer might be the primary reader, but ultimately we’re looking at sharing our stories with a wider audience. So we have to find a way to match the story we’re telling with the people we want to tell it to—and take the consequences. The more “niche” or “extreme” the story, the smaller the natural audience for that story is going to be. This is in no way a value judgement. Some of the most important fiction, the groundbreaking, mind-bending stuff, sits in the outer limits. But it’s for that reason you’ll find the sales are lower and the audience identification is narrower—and it’s a consideration that must be dealt with by any writer who wants a long term career, because you can bet your last dollar the publishers are dealing with it on a daily basis.

The commercial reality of publishing (and film/TV, for that matter)  is that to reach the mainstream audience, to engage the widest spectrum of readers—to make the most money and therefore be able to keep on publishing and producing and writing—stories need to stay more to the middle of the spectrum. That’s a pretty big place, with a lot of scope for great stories, but it does mean playing it, for want of a better word, “safe.” Or at least, safer. Some people find that notion anathema, and I completely understand that position, but speaking as a former bookseller, not just a writer, without the broad support of the middle there’d be no support for the edges. And we need the complete spectrum—not least because all those readers in the middle have as much right to the entertainment that pleases them as do the people who prefer more edgy and confrontational fare.

So that’s one level of constraint that’s placed on a published author. And then you get to the particular peculiarity of writing a tie-in novel — which means playing in someone else’s sandbox. But really, you know, writing a novel based on the Star Wars or Stargate worlds, or any media-based story, is no different from being a scriptwriter for one of those productions. Which is why I get mightily steamed at people who sneer at novelists who do write media tie-in books, because those very same people will in the next breath swoon over the latest episode or installment of a TV show or film series—and there is no freakin’ difference. Both writers have been hired to write a story set in a world they did not create, populated by characters they did not create, bounded by guidelines they might not always agree with but must always follow.

But since we know about those constraints going in, there’s no point carrying on about it. And trying to reinvent someone else’s world to suit our own vision is, in a nutshell, astonishingly rude. So, to answer your question (at last!) no. I’ve never felt limited by the material when writing for an established project. In both instances I came up with various stories that entertained me, the people responsible for protecting the integrity and continuity of the primary source material made sure I wasn’t screwing anything up, then left me alone to do my thing. In short, it felt to me that I had enormous freedom.

As for fan reaction? The Stargate books were very well received. It was lovely. The Star Wars books were also well received, by a certain segment of the fanbase. And that’s where things get interesting. The Stargate fan audience is small, compared to the Star Wars audience. The Stargate fan audience is also, overwhelmingly, female—which means that it is far, far more accepting of a female writer and a female writer’s particular POV (and I think there is one). The Star Wars fan audience, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly male. At least as far as I can tell. The vast majority of writers who do the tie-in novels are also male. There is a definite predominance of male voices and male POVs in Star Wars novels. And that makes a huge difference in the reception of the material.

Everything I write is grounded in character. Everything. It’s the people that make a story for me. So my Star Wars work is as much a character study or exploration as it is an action adventure romp. For some readers, that was brilliant. For others, it wasn’t. For a lot of Star Wars fans—the guys in particular—the story is about fighting and space battles and stuff like that. For them, that’s the whole point. For them, the intricacies of psychological investigation are boring and unwelcome. And I completely accept that. But it’s not what floats my starship—and I felt strongly that I can’t be the only one who is in love with the story because of the characters, not despite them. Or who wants to take a breath and spend some time with them as human beings, who wants to explore what makes them tick, the relationships between them, the strengths and fragilities they contain and share.

Turns out I’m not. The readers—male and female—who see and love that aspect of Star Wars completely connected with what I’m trying to do, and they’ve told me so. It’s been fabulous. But it is niche. I knew it was niche going in, and so did the folk who oversee the Star Wars novels project—and they let me do it anyway. I so admire them for that, and will be forever grateful that I was allowed to take some time out and be more introspective in the way a Star Wars story was told.

Looking at this, thinking about it, there’s a temptation to castigate the fandom as being unwelcoming to female writers and, by extension, female fans. And to an extent, I think that is the case, which breaks my heart. Some of the vitriol and virtual violence flung at Karen Traviss, for example, is horrific. Absolutely, there is a segment of the male fanbase that resents any incursion by a woman. But since that’s true on a wider societal scale, really, all that proves is that fandom is a microcosm of society.

Where it gets tricky is in separating personal taste from bigotry. I don’t think it’s fair to say that any male Star Wars fan who doesn’t like what I write—or what any female author writes—is automatically a sexist bastard. Perhaps there is an element of misogyny in the response. Perhaps we are looking at a knee-jerk “girl cooties” response. I don’t know. I can’t read the heart and mind of a male Star Wars fan who doesn’t like my stuff, for example. Star Wars is a fairly “boy’s own adventure” kind of story, and perhaps that means it’s more naturally skewed towards an audience that loves and wants “boy’s own adventure” storytelling, and nothing else.

But it could be that I didn’t do a good enough job to capture the wide middle of the fanbase. And if that’s so, I’ll wear it. But I’ll also take heart from the readers who’ve written to me saying, “Thanks for that, it was the best Star Wars novel I’ve read.”

Third question: One of the things I’ve noticed is that the Australian epic fantasy market seems to produce more female names who go on to UK and international distribution (I’m based in Ireland) than seems to be the case vis-à-vis the USA. In fact, though I like to think I keep up well enough with the US market, most of the female writers of epic fantasy who have achieved any kind of midlist/popularity I can name seem to be from or based in Australia. Do you think that genre readers in Australia/NZ are more receptive to female voices, or am I wildly over-generalising from a too-small sample?

KM: This is a great question, and for me the answer is incredibly complex. It’s taken me some time to think my way through it, and before I say any more, I’ll say this: whatever my response, it’s subjective. It’s not gospel. But here goes:

From my observations, and from conversations I’ve had with other writers, the US does seem peculiarly resistant to certain kinds of women fantasy writers—most particularly, those who write epic fantasy. On the whole—leaving aside the subset genres of urban fantasy, romantic fantasy and paranormal fantasy, all of which are almost exclusively geared for the female reading audience—women fantasy writers struggle to get the same kind of sales/recognition/readership as their male counterparts. Whereas, as you say, there is a greater acceptance of women fantasy writers of all stripes in the UK. And of those women, some of the most prominent do indeed come from Australia—Trudi Canavan, Glenda Larke, Jennifer Fallon, and I guess you can include me in there too.

I’m starting to think it’s because we’re looking at some profound differences between the US and UK/Australian cultures.

Upfront, here’s a blanket caveat—human societies today are all misogynistic, but the severity and impact of the anti-women bias varies from place to place. Some women are totally repressed and brutalised on a daily basis, and others have an enormous range of freedoms and opportunities available to them. The bias against them is more subtle, and even obfuscated by their apparent lack of barriers. This is an uncomfortable statement, I know. And I certainly don’t mean to hand-wave the great strides many women have made in the areas of equality and freedom—or accuse all men of being mindless, oppressing brutes. But as sure I’m sitting here typing, I know that the oppression of women is omnipresent, no matter where a woman lives. All that’s different is the degree, and how it’s manifested. As much as it pains me to say this—just because some people can’t or won’t see it doesn’t mean the oppression doesn’t exist.

So. Culturally, I think both the UK and Australia seem to have a far more welcoming attitude towards women being active in spheres beyond the domestic domain. The UK is used to seeing women in power, with the monarchy and in government, and I think that’s echoed here because of the ongoing close cultural ties. But the US cut its ties, and doesn’t seem to have absorbed that ethos, and so appears far more resistant to the notion of a woman with political power. A look at the US’s political history seems to bear that out. Even in the 21st century, women are pretty much destroyed if they try for the US presidency, or attempt to step beyond the “glamorous wife” role as First Lady.

Just as importantly, I think, neither UK nor Australian culture has a romanticised, idealised narrative about motherhood, and the immoveable place of women being in the home. At least, not in the same way the US has it. The whole “mom and apple pie” thing never got going with us in the same way. I think this explains, at least partly, why the major push for women’s rights, the feminism movement, began in the US—because those women had more to kick against. But having said that, I’m not claiming that life is all skittles and roses for women in the UK and Australia. It’s not. We fight a lot of battles, still. But it seems to me the resistance to a strong female voice is more entrenched and extreme in the US.

This leads us to:

In general, I believe the spec fic fields in all three countries are mostly gatekeepered by men, and the male POV. Almost everything is filtered by what is or isn’t deemed “good” by a man. (An Australian exception would be Twelve Planets Press, run by Alisa Krasnostein, World Fantasy Award winner). For example—I was flicking through the list of reviews for The Avengers on the IMDB website. Nearly two hundred of them, and nearly all the reviews were written by men. One woman who wrote a review didn’t much care for the film, and is subjected to some really hateful, gender-based commentary as a result. Or look at any of the popular genre magazines, some of which are published in the UK. Again, the male voice/POV is completely dominant. In some cases women are almost entirely erased from the genre landscape, issue after issue. Or mentioned only in sexualised terms. You certainly can’t find them on the writing/editorial staff. It’s the male perspective, the male voice, the male imprimatur, that are most prized in today’s cultures. But whereas, for reasons I can’t explain, the gatekeeper effect doesn’t seem to impact women fantasy writers as strongly in the UK and Australia, in the US it does.

From what I can make out via US popular culture, many men are raised to view women as second best if not downright inferior and defective. Indeed, one of the worst things you can say to an American male, one of the worst insults, is that he does something “like a girl,” That he’s “pussy whipped,” or a “mama’s boy.”  To be told “a girl can do better than you!” is the ultimate in soul-destroying judgements. There are those who still believe that gay men are created by mothers who have too much influence over them! And in just the last couple of days, a boy’s school refused to play a game of baseball because there was a girl on the opposing team. Presumably the shame that would be experienced by losing to them was enough reason to pull out. Can’t have boys being beaten by a team with a girl on it. Their testicles might drop off.

Think about that. Think about the damage that prevailing attitude does to men, to women, boys and girls, and the fabric of the society as a whole. More than half of the population, its ideas, dreams, opinions and contributions, devalued and marginalised on the basis of gender alone. More than half of its voices silenced. Being perceived as woman-like as the ultimate punishment, the ultimate failure. It’s staggering and tragic, and it has a profound impact on the ability of women fantasy writers to make a living, let alone have an impact on the field. The fact that there are men today, in supposedly civilised Western societies, who proudly proclaim that they will not read a book written by a woman, for no other reason than it was written by a woman—what does that say about the kind of blind bigotry that still prevails in our lives? Women are expected to fully participate in stories written by men and about men—but men are often made to feel inferior if they engage in stories written by women about women, or about men and women. This isn’t to say that stories should never be written with just men or just women in mind. I don’t believe that at all. But to dismiss the books written by women fantasy writers solely because they’re written by women? Really? Everyone’s okay with that?

Whether this attitude towards women is held consciously and openly—which sometimes it is—or whether it sits beneath the surface of the psyche, festering, the result is the same: women are less, they are in fact never women, but only “girls,” and while they might be sexually desirable they are never, never, intellectual or physical or literary equals.

Recently, Glenda Larke pointed out an extraordinary comment in one of the George RR Martin forum sites—a male reader who claimed, with apparently unassailable authority, that women don’t read fantasy. [LB: Link to Larke’s post here; link to ASOIAF Westeros forum thread in question here.]

That is such a crock of shit, and so ignorant and dismissive, I can’t begin to articulate the fury of my reaction. But from my observations it’s fairly typical of a great deal of the male fantasy/spec fic audience and the genre’s gatekeepers—especially the ones whose interests are focused on epic fantasy. Epic fantasy grew out of Tolkien, and then the whole Dungeons and Dragons scene, and these are strongly male dominated/focused narratives. You’re also looking at Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Conan books, the Boris Vallejo school of fantasy art, most fantasy films… dominated by the male view. It’s men talking to men, about what it means to be men, about how men can be or should be heroic and meaningful—and in that worldview, woman are little more than sexual receptacles, bones to be fought over, blow up dolls to be used and discarded with no more care than a Kleenex. We aren’t equals, we aren’t powerful, and our only value is in our tits—or our ability to die horribly so the man has a catalyst for his adventure.

This is what women writers of fantasy that isn’t romance-based, or urban, face every day of their working lives—especially in the US. It galls me beyond the telling that a brilliant epic fantasy novelist like Kate Elliott isn’t celebrated the way so many male writers are. Or that a genius SF writer like the late Kage Baker was mostly ignored. If she’d been a man, I swear she’d have died pretty much a household name in the spec fic field.

As you say, there is indeed more gender neutral acceptance of women writers in the UK and Australia. Jennifer Fallon regularly tops the bestseller lists here, as does Trudi Canavan. Trudi is a publishing phenomenon! Her work rates off the charts in the UK! My first fantasy novel, The Innocent Mage, was the UK’s #1 bestselling debut fantasy novel in 2007. I outperformed a lot of male writers (much to the consternation of some male gatekeepers!). So to answer your question in a nutshell: yes. Readers here and in the UK are more receptive to female voices than readers in the US. And that will only change when the attitudes of the gatekeepers change.

But how we do that? I’m still scratching my head … because first society has to change, and as far as I can tell, things are going backwards on that front. But we can’t give up the fight. For one thing, we need to find and support the male voices that are prepared to sing out for women writers. We need more men like John Scalzi, who is a fierce proponent of literary equality.

But you know, I must add this, because the last thing I want to do is make it seem that I don’t know or appreciate that there are male readers, not just in the US but everywhere, who have no problem reading books written by women. I get letters from them, and I really really love them—for reading me, for telling others to read me, and taking the time to tell me that they liked what they read. And they read other women writers too. It’s not that no men ever, anywhere, read books by women. It’s just not enough men do. And I don’t want to come over as a knee-jerk US-basher, either, because I believe there’s a great deal to appreciate in the US. It’s just—they can do better. We all can do better when it comes to gender parity, in every sphere of life.

I’d like to add a final caveat. Whatever the problems faced by women spec fic writers in the US—everywhere, really—in my opinion, very little of the blame can be sheeted home to publishers. Publishing is not a charitable endeavour, nor is it a mechanism for social change. To make money, and stay in business, publishers must produce books that the public is interested in reading. For the most part they are reactive, not proactive. And some publishers—notably Orbit, to whom I owe almost everything—consistently champion women writers, and do their best to punch through the barriers to their success that currently exist. But they are constrained by the same societal forces as the rest of us. Sure, sometimes publishers are too willing to be dictated to by the status quo. But for the most part, they do try. And if we, the reading/book-buying public send them a message via book sales, that we value women authors and celebrate women authors and want more women authors, they will respond.

But that means we have to do more ourselves to raise the awareness of women in the field of speculative fiction, and encourage more men to overcome the biases they’ve inherited and speak out—without getting annihilated for not being perfect!—in favour of women writers they enjoy.  That way everybody wins.

My fourth and penultimate question. As K.E. Mills, you’ve written a series of humorous fantasy novels, the Rogue Agent series. Does the Rogue Agent series present you with different challenges than your other epic fantasy work? Is it ever difficult to reconcile the element of comedy—the situational and character-focused humour—with the underlying drama?

KM: Yes and no. There’s an episode of The West Wing where Josh and Sam are brainstorming a big speech, and they keep asking each other—where’s the funny? Did we forget to bring the funny? That’s a bit how I feel about writing the Rogue Agent novels. Oh hell, will I be able to bring the funny? But then when I get started, the characters start doing their things, and talking, and carrying on, and the humour is all there waiting because it’s part of them. Of course one day that might all go away…

There’s also a difference in writing a series, as opposed to a multi-volume single story. When it comes to the Miller epic fantasy, I tend to think in terms of theatre. So a trilogy, for me, is actually about writing three acts of a play, or five acts, how every many volumes there are. So no act or volume is completely standalone, but slots into the bigger picture. The Rogue Agent books were conceived as more like a mystery series, where you have an ongoing cast of characters enjoying a stand alone adventure in each instalment. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, because it seems I’m addicted to arc-based storytelling. That means that while each “mystery” is pretty much self-contained, there are many plot threads/character threads that carry over, that I reference from book to book. As a reader, that’s the most satisfying kind of storytelling to me, and I can’t seem to write it any other way. But it does make for challenges with long-running continuity, and remembering stuff!

As for balance between the humour and the drama, I have to say this: with the Rogue Agent series I never started out intending to write “comic fantasy.” Always, always, my intention is to write drama. But what happened was that the characters sprang to life and suddenly they were being snarky, the banter kept happening, and sometimes the essential lunacy of life bled through, and before I knew it there were funny bits. Because that’s life, isn’t it? Some days you want to slash your wrists, and other days you’re crying with laughter. Horrible things happen, and crazy/funny things happen, and sometimes those two aspects of life get mixed up in the same moment. So I guess I just go in to these stories keeping that in the back of my mind, and then I let things unfold as they will. What I do try to remember is that the humour can’t ever be silly. There must always be a grounded element in it, a “real life, real world” foundation to the events, or the characters stop being real people and become… something else.

My fifth and ultimate question: Please tell us something about what you’re working on at the moment and what we can expect from you in the future?

KM: Right now it feels like you can expect a nervous breakdown.

There’s another Rogue Agent novel to come—and more after that, I hope, but we’ll have to see. Book 5 deals with the fallout from the events in book 4, Wizard Undercover, while getting Gerald back with some old friends and a fresh crop of crises.

And then there’s The Tarnished Crown series. I’m working on book 1 now, as yet untitled. It’s the biggest, most complicated epic fantasy story I’ve ever tried to tell. A big cast, a vast canvas, multiple cultures and locations, the rise and fall of dynasties, murder, mayhem, and pirates. Possibly also some plague. Swords and magic and a wonderful array of villains. It’s scaring the pants off me, but that’s good. If you’re not being challenged then you’re just spinning your wheels, I think. It might seem crazy, given what I’ve said elsewhere about the struggle women fantasy writers face when it comes to epic fantasy—but I have to try. I refuse to lie down and say, okay, fine, the wimminz have no right to paddle in this pool. That’s crap. We lose when we stop fighting, and I’ll never stop fighting.

 

We lose when we stop fighting, indeed. Your correspondent (humble or not) is grateful to Karen Miller for her time and thoughtfulness. And thank you, Gentle (or not so gentle) Reader, if you’re still with us!


Liz Bourke had a witty quotation for this space, but she lost it. Find her on Twitter @hawkwing_lb. (Bring your own wit.)

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