Today we’re joined by Karen Healey, acclaimed New Zealand author of Guardian of the Dead, The Shattering, and When We Wake—two of which I’ve reviewed right here on Tor.com, so it should come as no surprise that I think she’s an excellent writer. She’s agreed to answer a few questions, so without further ado:
LB: For the first question, let me ask you the same thing I asked Sarah Rees Brennan last autumn:
What are your thoughts on the relationship between YA, fantasy/science fiction, and gender? I’ve heard YA dismissed for “catering to the fantasies of teenage girls,” as though that were a bad thing—what’s your experience been like?
KH: This idea that catering for the fantasies of teenage girls is a bad thing! Why shouldn’t teenage girls have their fantasies catered to? There’s nothing wrong with giving girls places to escape, sites to explore their dreams, ideas to challenge or satisfy them. As it happens, catering for the fantasies of teenage girls is not the only function YA fulfils, nor does all YA include such catering. But if that were all YA did, YA’s existence would be entirely justified by that fact.
I get so sick of these ridiculous stereotypes—YA is only for silly teenage girls and their silly dreams, sci-fi is for men who never grew up, fantasy is escapism for people who can’t handle reality. And it really bugs me when people who would argue strenuously against one of those stereotypes—because it derides their own tastes—will happily accept another.
LB: Second question! How has the fact that you include queer characters in your books been received?
KH: In a variety of ways, as you’d expect! Some people are thrilled to have characters they feel reflect them and their experiences with sexuality, some people are cautiously happy about the inclusion, but feel the depictions aren’t right, some people seem to think I have a list and are ticking off boxes as I go (which, no—the only character traits I keep an eye on that way are white, straight people—as in, is this too many white, straight people for this setting? Is this actually realistic, or just what I’ve been conditioned to think is realistic?).
And some people are raging bigots who don’t want queer characters in YA, or queer people in real life. I try very hard to totally ignore their opinions, and that’s working out well for me.
LB: Guardian of the Dead and The Shattering both involve a present-day world in conversation with myth/magic/the fantastic, while When We Wake treats of science-fictional future. Do you see science-fictional themes as a change in genre or emphasis? Does the world of When We Wake reflect the kind of future you expect to see?
KH: It is a change in emphasis and genre, which is interesting to me, because the process was exactly the same as my other work—find an archetype that interests me (in this case, the Sleeping Beauty), play around with the ideas involved, watch a plot evolve, write a book. But in this book the vector of change is science, not magic. I was future-thinking, extrapolating forward, not sideways-exploring the what-ifs of a contemporary world with magic.
I’m not sure that When We Wake’s future is what I would expect to see. In some ways, I really hope it is—a future where misogyny, homophobia and most versions of racism are regarded as the barbaric beliefs of the past sounds very appealing to me. But rampant xenophobia and the perils of climate change are less appealing, and fairly predictable. If anything, I was too kind to my future world on the environmental change front.
LB: There seems to be much less science fiction available and/or popular in the YA market than fantasy. In some respects this mirrors the “adult” SFF genre’s proportions, but with the exception of dystopia or post-apocalyptic the difference seems more marked in YA. Why do you think this is?
KH: I genuinely have no idea! I read them both voraciously as a kid. I do think counting dystopia and post-apocalyptic as “exceptions” does sort of do YA sc-fi a disservice—that is a huge proportion of adult sci-fi, after all. But certainly there isn’t an abundance of space opera or military sci-fi on YA shelves, which is a shame. Maybe I can do something about that.
LB: It does seem to me that the largest proportion of adult SF is space opera/milSF, whereas YA is dystopia—but, point taken about them not being “exceptions” really.
Next question! Frequently there are discussions about race and representation, and also cultural appropriation, in science fiction and fantasy of all stripes, primarily from a USperspective. As a NZ author writing books (so far) set in NZ and AUS, what do you think of issues of representation and cultural appropriation?
KH: Oh, definitely, but the proportions being reversed when it comes to YA makes sense to me—teenagers worry a lot about the future, but less about military minutiae. (I actually have eight chapters of a YA space opera to revise and send out where the leads are Military Girl and Raffish Colonial Boy, so, you know, here’s hoping.)
Anyway, next answer! I come from a multi-cultural nation. I got the “ticking boxes” suggestion for my portrayal of a multi-cultural Christchurch, but that setting was actually less diverse than the one in which I attended university in Christchurch. It was less realistic than the reality, but it looked weird to those who were maybe sub-consciously expecting what we’re taught is normal in the media; ie, a lot of white people. As for Australia—Melbourne is the second most ethnically-diverse city in the world. Many, many races are represented in Melbourne, and certainly this will only be more diverse a hundred years on. So, if many cultures are present, why shouldn’t they be represented in my work?
Of course, that’s sort of disingenuous—Australia and New Zealand both have difficult histories and present-day issues regarding racism, particularly that related to the indigenous peoples of both nations. In being representative, I also have to be very careful to treat characters as characters, not token aspects of a particular ethnicity. I have to put in the research time, and I have to be respectful in my portrayals of cultures and beliefs in which I have no personal claim.
It’s worth it—certainly for me, and I hope for my readers.
LB: What draws you to write fantasy and science fiction, and for young adults? You’ve mentioned on your blog that you’re presently training as a teacher: do you see your two careers complementing each other?
KH: Definitely. Actually, one of the reasons I decided to become a high school teacher was because of writing—I was going out to schools and leading creative writing workshops in English classes, and I really enjoyed it. Much more than the PhD studies which were my ostensible job at the time; that was interesting work, but I missed interaction with young people.
I write fantasy and science fiction because I love exploring possibilities and what ifs, and those are the two genres that mean you can really explore all the what ifs, not just the ones that are currently plausible. And I write for young adults, because I respect and like them, and because they are very interesting people in a very interesting stage. That transitional aspect, of childhood to adulthood, that’s fascinating to me. It’s ripe with possibilities to explore.
LB: And, last question: with When We Wake in the wild, what are you working on now, and what should we expect to see from you in the near and medium-term future?
KH: I’m revising the sequel, currently called While We Run! That’s from the point of view of Abdi, Tegan’s friend and kissing partner in the first book, and it takes place six months after the events of When We Wake. I can’t tell you anything about it without spoiling the first book, so let’s just say... explosions. At least one thing explodes. So that’s the near future work, slated for release in 2014.
As for medium-term, I have work on the go. I also have teacher training, which has to be my first priority, but oh my yes, I certainly have plans. Especially about space operas, and young adult fiction, and how I might do something about that....