We’ve arrived at the end of our brief focus on Martha Wells. I shall be disappointed if she needs further introduction (aside from those books of hers I’ve covered in this space, you should all go read City of Bones and The Death of the Necromancer right now, I mean right away people, what are you waiting for, they’re right there—ahem), so without further ado, let me present Martha Wells: the author of thirteen novels, mostly recently the Books of the Raksura (The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and The Siren Depths, Night Shade Books) and Emilie and the Hollow World (Angry Robot Books).
LB: Let me start with a standard opening question:
What’s your opinion of how women—as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFF genre community. (And please feel free to interpret the question as broadly or as narrowly as you please.) Have you seen change over time?
MW: As far as fandom goes, I think my experience has mostly been atypical. I started out in SF/F fandom in the 80s, in a university-sponsored SF/F student group that ran an SF convention every year. It always had a large number of female members and committee officers, and in the four years I was a member, the committee chairmen and convention chairmen were almost all female. I was also involved in media fanzine fandom, which was predominately female. I went to MediaWestCon for several years, which had far more female than male attendees. There were always large numbers of women fans at the local Texas conventions I went to and steadily increasing numbers of women writers and artists participating on panels, and as dealers and convention organizers. Women being unwelcome or unsafe in SF/F communities and abusive behavior toward women authors wasn’t something I really encountered personally until I started participating in fandom on the internet in the early 90s. I don’t know what it’s like in real-world genre communities outside the small ones I frequent, but the abusive behavior in internet communities seems to be getting increasingly worse.
As for characters, when I was growing up it was very hard to find adventure stories geared toward children or young readers with female main characters, or even with female characters who were active participants in the adventure and not just there to be rescued or to act as an antagonistic babysitter to the intrepid male characters. One of the reasons I was drawn to adult SF/F was because it was possible to find female characters who actually got to do things, though again there were a lot of women rescuees who didn’t see much actual action. I read Zelde M’tana by F.M. Busby at way too young an age, because the paperback cover showed a woman with a ray gun in her hand who clearly was not a victim and was not there to be rescued. Active, effective female protagonists are more common now, but I do think there’s still a lot of room for improvement in the way women are portrayed.
LB: You’ve published five books set in Ile-Rien. In the space between the books, society and technology alter. In many fantasies, this doesn’t happen. Why do you think that is?
MW: I think it depends on the type of world-building in the fantasy, and the type of story the author is trying to tell. If the fantasy is about a truly magical world that exists out of time, then the lack of change between books is somewhat expected. The Ile-Rien books were set in a world where magic and technology were often used in combination, and where magic had to be constructed and developed like technology. And Ile-Rien was heavily influenced by a real world setting, so it made sense that in the gaps of time between books that it would progress more like a real culture, and that it would be constantly evolving. The Books of the Raksura have a different emphasis, and if I wrote another one set a huge amount of time after the end of The Siren Depths, the changes would all be biological.
LB: You’ve written novels for the Stargate: Atlantis franchise, and I understand you’ve a forthcoming book in the Star Wars franchise. How does that compare with writing original novels?
MW: I feel a lot of pressure to try to get it right, to make the story fit into the already established world, and to get the characterization and character voices right. The trick is to try to do something new and fun and still have it fit the source material. That’s why I really wouldn’t consider doing a media tie-in if I wasn’t already a big fan of the show or movie. With an original book, even a later book in a series, there isn’t that kind of pressure.
LB: Regarding your own books: I understand that when rights reverted to you with Element of Fire, City of Bones, Death of the Necromancer and Wheel of the Infinite you brought them out electronically, and in Element and Bones’ cases, in hardcopy, yourself. Would you care to tell us a bit about the decisions and processes behind that?
MW: I was originally hoping to get one or more of them reprinted by a publisher, maybe as part of a package deal with a new book, but never had any luck with that. I did The Element of Fire and City of Bones first as POD reprints through Lulu.com, a couple of years before ebooks started to get more popular. I turned them into ebooks once it got fairly easy to do that through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and later Kobo. I experimented with prices for a while, then decided to keep them fairly cheap, at $2.99, since they are older reprints. Once my new agent got the rights back to Wheel of the Infinite, I went ahead and made it an ebook. It took a while, since I didn’t have a word processor file of the finished book, so I had to cut a hardcover apart and scan it in page by page. (I felt like a book murderer cutting a perfectly good hardcover apart, too.) I did The Death of the Necromancer last, because I was still hoping against hope that a publisher might be interested in it. I just made it available in ebook in late February, and it’s also going to be serialized online by Black Gate Magazine later this year, so I’m looking forward to that.
LB: One of the things that fascinates me about your books is the characterisation, of Nicholas Valiarde and Maskelle in particular. Maskelle is a woman and a priestess of some maturity, Nicholas a (somewhat) ethical criminal mastermind. Neither are characters of the sort commonly found in fantasy. Would you like to talk about the types of characters you include in your work and your approach to characterisation?
MW: Those two were deliberate choices. For Nicholas, I wanted to write a protagonist who in most books like this would be the antagonist, if not the outright villain. For Maskelle I wanted to write about an older woman protagonist because I’d been thinking a lot about the portrayals of older women in books and movies around that time. I’d seen an older movie that dealt explicitly with the idea that when women reach a certain age, we’re just supposed to retire from life, especially any kind of a sex life. So I wanted to write an older woman who was very much still a force in the lives of people around her. I’d already done that with Ravenna in The Element of Fire, but I wanted to get more into it with a main character.
I do like to write about characters who aren’t just starting out, who have had adventures before, who have had a past they aren’t that happy looking back on. Even the ones who are in their early twenties, like Kade and Tremaine, have packed a lot of experience into the time they’ve had. For Moon in the Books of the Raksura, he’s lived around thirty-five to forty years, but Raksura age differently so his mental age is only around twenty. So he’s had a lot of experience but his ability to process and deal with it has been erratic, which is one of the things that makes it difficult for him to relate to and understand the emotions and reactions of the other characters. I think Emilie, in Emilie and the Hollow World, is the first time I’ve written a main character who was just starting out and had little experience to draw from, and it was an interesting experience for me as a writer.
LB: You say writing Emilie, in Emilie and the Hollow World, “was an interesting experience for me as a writer.” Would you like to elaborate on that a bit?
MW: I hadn’t written a character who was that young before, and she was also someone who had been living in what is basically a little village where nothing much happens. So I had to remember that most of what she was encountering would be new to her. Her first time to see real violence, as opposed to kids fighting in a schoolyard. Her first time to really be in physical danger. Her first time to see someone die violently. So I had to take all that into account, and it was just a different experience for me.
LB: Do you consider yourself influenced by other writers within and without the SFF genre? If so, who and how?
MW: Yes, I think I’ve been influenced a lot. Andre Norton, Tanith Lee, Barbara Hambly, Diane Duane (The Door into Fire and The Door into Shadow), Judith Tarr, Phyllis Gotlieb, F.M. Busby, John Varley, Sydney J. Van Scyoc (Starmother). The public library my parents took me to in Fort Worth had the children’s section next to the SF/F section, so I was reading adult SF/F at a very young age. I don’t think I can pick apart how I was influenced by which author. But these were the authors whose books I went back to again and again when I was in high school and college, when I first started trying to write stories. I think it’s also safe to say genre TV and movies were a big influence—the first stories I ever tried to write were Godzilla fanfiction when I was in elementary school, complete with elaborate maps of Monster Island made with multiple sheets of typing paper and nearly six feet wide. I kind of wish I still had those.
LB: Last but not least, what are you working on now? What should we look forward to seeing next?
MW: Right now I’m working on Emilie and the Sky World, the sequel to Emilie and the Hollow World. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do after that. I have a couple of ideas for different books, and I would still like to do another Raksura novel at some point.
Thank you, Martha Wells, for joining us.