In honor of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, currently underway in San Diego, California, I am conducting a series of interviews with some of my former classmates to show just how much success a Clarion student can have in only a few years after completing the workshop. Previously, I interviewed my fellow student Kenneth Schneyer from the class of 2009 about his success. Today, I talk with another classmate, Shauna Roberts
Shauna Roberts was born in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Beavercreek. She received degrees in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University. She has been a science and medical writer and copyeditor. She also writes historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. Her short fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Jim Baen’s Universe, Space Westerns, the anthologies Barren Worlds and Return to Luna, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Like Mayflies in a Stream, was published in 2009. She is a 2009 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop.
Shauna has the distinction of being the oldest student from the class of 2009, which gave her stories an authenticity from her wealth of life experience. In the interview below, we discuss some of her rich life experiences, and how they and the workshop have influenced her writing.
Matt London: What was your fiction writing experience before attending Clarion?
Shauna Roberts: I had written roughly twenty short stories, of which ten had sold, and three novels. Like Mayflies in a Stream, a historical novel set in ancient Mesopotamia, sold before Clarion and was published in fall of 2009 by Hadley Rille Books. The other two novels are fantasies, and fulls are out at publishers.
Matt London: How did you first hear about the Clarion Workshop, and what inspired you to apply?
Shauna Roberts: When I first started writing fiction seriously, I bought several how-to books. One of those books was Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller, which tells about her experiences teaching at Clarion.
A perfect storm of events in 2009 made Clarion possible. First, I had recently received an inheritance, so cost was not a factor. Second, because of the economy, I had just lost my biggest freelance client, so for the first time I had time to go. Third, I had moved to Southern California, so I would be close enough to get to the lab for my regular bloodwork. Fourth, I had arrived at the level of writing skill at which I could wring the most out of the Clarion adventure. And fifth, I had just started a new medication that gave me substantially more energy, so for the first time, I believed I could handle the large physical challenge.
Matt London: What was the workshop experience like? Can you think of an instance when a comment from a classmate made one of your stories better?
Shauna Roberts: The workshop was as intense and difficult as Wilhelm’s Storyteller said, although current living conditions are far more comfortable and pleasant. Despite the hard work, Clarion was an incredible experience, perhaps the best of my life. It was heaven to spend all my time writing and critting with almost no distractions for six weeks, as well as to hang out with seventeen other people with the same interests and dreams.
Usually when I write, I write with the intent to sell. At Clarion, I gave myself permission to take risks and write without regard for salability. I tried out new things and accepted challenges, knowing I had a safety net of savvy people who could help me judge the success or failure of my attempts.
I can’t name a specific comment that made a story better — because of sleep deprivation, my Clarion memories are confused and dreamlike — but in general every classmate made useful comments on every story. We had an incredible group of people in our class.
Matt London: What are some of the benefits of being a part of the Clarion community?
Shauna Roberts: The biggest benefit is making seventeen friends-for-life. It’s wonderful to belong to a group of people who have each other’s back and who will be together through thick and thin as we build our careers as writers. It’s as if Clarion awarded me a second family.
It’s also great that the members of our class have continued to critique each other’s work. How many writers have the regular opportunity to receive high-level critiques? We are very lucky.
Unlike most writers at the start of their careers, when I need advice from a professional SFF writer, I can call on my Clarion teachers.
Of course, the Clarion community extends well beyond our own class of 2009. As an introvert, I love that I can go to any SFF con and meet people easily based on our shared Clarion experience. The Clarionites I’ve met from other classes have been generous with information, advice, and friendship. I feel part of a vast web of writers that stretches across continents.
Matt London: Can you talk about one of your instructors who inspired you? What was it like having close and constant contact with such big names?
Shauna Roberts: When I was a medical writer, I interviewed dozens of the world’s top researchers, including many Nobel prize winners and high-up government health officials. So it was no big deal to associate with big names. What did impress and awe me was that these writers gave up a precious week to teach us and hang out with us and even eat the sometimes-strange cafeteria food.
In the one-on-one sessions, I had a useful, enlightening session with every instructor, and they all inspired me. I will single out Larissa Lai, though, for her discussion in class (later continued in our one-on-one session) on colonialism and how formerly colonized people often disapprove of Westerners writing about their culture, considering it a form of theft.
Matt London: What was the most important thing you learned at Clarion?
Shauna Roberts: To appreciate — and sometimes understand — stories that are subtle or metaphorical or use nonstandard structures.
Matt London: Tell me about some of your writing experiences since completing the workshop.
Shauna Roberts: I’ve written less than I expected to. After I got home from Clarion, promoting my forthcoming novel became my main occupation. After that, I foolishly volunteered for projects that took time away from my writing. Health problems have made it difficult to write for much of the past two years.
Even so, I fixed up and sold a couple of pre-Clarion stories and declared the others unsalvageable. I wrote several new stories and have sold a few of those. I also resold an old novella to Jim Baen’s Universe, which published it in their February 2010 issue. It was my first pro sale, so I am now a proud associate member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
New medication and a new commitment to getting a full night’s sleep every night have recently made it easier to think and write. My head is bursting with ideas, and I am working on several short stories and two novels.
Matt London: Please tell us about the SF writing grant you recently received, and what you plan to do with it.
Shauna Roberts: The Speculative Literature Foundation awarded me its Older Writers Grant for 2011, for which I’m very grateful. The grant is for speculative fiction writers who are in the early stages of their career and are 50 years old or older. The grant will go toward the expensive necessities of being a writer: ink and toner cartridges, paper, that sort of thing. Having the grant also makes it easier to justify going to World Fantasy Con and other conferences when I’m not yet earning much money from my fiction.
Matt London: How did attending Clarion in your 50s affect your experience of the workshop? Was it a plus or a minus to be one of the oldest students?
Shauna Roberts: Being older was a huge benefit.
For one thing, I had a much broader knowledge base to draw on for my stories and my critiques than the youngest students. I had read hundreds, maybe thousands, more books; lived in more places; met and worked with more people in more jobs; and had more life-changing experiences, such as starting my own freelancing business, almost dying because a doctor’s hand slipped, learning to live with several chronic illnesses, and restoring a flooded house in New Orleans.
Also, being older meant I had experienced more successes and more failures and so had developed confidence and a thick shell. As a result, I wasn’t afraid of writing terrible stories or being unpopular or making a bad impression on the teachers. Criticism of my work couldn’t hurt me or make me angry.
None of this means I considered my Clarion classmates unprepared. All, especially the youngest ones, impressed me with their self-confidence and smarts and analytical abilities, and I felt privileged to be in class with them. In my early twenties, I didn’t have the social skills or ability to express my self verbally that these young people had. I expect my Clarion classmates to go far as SFF writers, despite not having the advantages of my additional years.
Being the oldest student did have two disadvantages. First, I needed more sleep than the younger people; I socialized less so I could snooze more. Second, most young people are accustomed to having friends only of the same age group. I was bolder than comes naturally to reach out to everyone, because I thought otherwise the age difference could be a barrier to friendship.
Another difference — not necessarily good or bad, just different — is that I have far fewer years left to write. Although my life experiences should help me build a career faster, my writing legacy likely will derive as much from the work of writers I encourage and critique as from what I write myself. To ensure a good legacy, since Clarion I have two purposes: Write as much as I can, and help other writers as much as I can.
Matt London: Can you give us a few examples of how your professional and life experience has influenced your speculative fiction writing?
Shauna Roberts: (1) Earning a Ph.D. in anthropology gave me the knowledge and research skills to write stories set in other cultures and to create believable fantasy worlds. As a result, my stories and novels take place in a wide range of cultures and times and have characters who are not thinly disguised 21st-century people.
(2) I worked at scientific journals for a while, doing database management, editing, writing, and production. Then I spent almost two decades as a freelance science and medical writer. That experience gave me the ability to quickly get up to speed on scientific disciplines and instrumentation. Although I prefer to write science fiction based in the social sciences, I can write accurate hard sf when I want to.
(3) Growing up during the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement had a profound effect on me, as did the deaths of my parents and the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans caused by failure of the federal levees. I saw incredible generosity after the flood: Tiny poor countries offered us aid, and the “Cajun Navy” sailed to the city immediately with food and water. I also saw devastating incompetence: Many elderly people died because government agencies had lied about levee strength and because the federal government had put no rescue workers in place. Slow, incompetent bureaucracy kept people out of their homes unnecessarily long and eventually forced some to move away. Rightly or wrongly, most of us believed the indifferent response was due to our being a majority-black city. As a result of these and other experiences, certain themes recur in my novels and short stories: loss, culture clash, prejudice and tolerance, New Orleans, recovery from grief, and social issues such as class, sex, race, and religion.
Matt London: Has life changed for you significantly since attending Clarion?
Shauna Roberts: Yes, drastically. Clarion strengthened my resolve to be a fiction writer and encouraged me to make fiction writing my top priority. I gave up my freelance clients except for one small newsletter. Although my road since has been bumpy, I have still managed to complete several new stories, and I am working on a YA fantasy novel and another adult historical novel.
Matt London: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are thinking of applying to Clarion, and those who are at the Clarion Workshop right now?
Shauna Roberts: Eat healthy, vegetable-based meals, and drink lots of water. Get as much sleep as possible. Write the same thoughtful, clear critiques for others that you wish to receive yourself. Make friends with everyone. Take risks with your writing, because you’ll never have such a good chance to experiment ever again. Pace yourself so you don’t burn out halfway through.
Also, don’t eat the squid patties!
Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop (but at this point you probably know that), as well as a columnist for Tor.com, Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. Follow him on Twitter, or else!