Kate Elliott started writing in the 1980s as Alis Rasmussen. Twenty-five years later, she’s still going strong. Her latest novel, Cold Steel, the final volume in the Spiritwalker trilogy, was released by Orbit last month. Today, she’s agreed to answer a few questions for us...
Liz Bourke: Let me start somewhat generally, by asking you your opinion of how women—as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFF genre community. Have you seen much change over time?
Kate Elliott: I’ve been mulling over this question for several weeks. There are times when I feel people are having the same conversations about women in the SFF community over and over again precisely because “women’s issues” get so buried and reburied that they have to keep climbing the same damn stairs just to get up into the light.
However, while certain conversations do well up at regular intervals, they are not exactly the same conversation: There are, to use the musical term, themes and variations, with new approaches and perspectives over time. “Women’s issues” are (of course) only one part of a much larger and often overlapping conversation about representation, visibility, and marginalization within the field along other vectors like race, gender, language, class, ethnicity, geography, and so on.
Having said that, I want to approach the question from a slightly different angle.
Recently there’s been a lot of talk about visibility of women both in reviews and in awards that has discussed (among other things) disparities in reviewing. Lady Business has done excellent posts two years in a row on this question: Here is 2012’s Coverage of Women on SF/F Blogs and a follow up on reactions to the original post.
VIDA has in recent years published its “treatment of women in literature” breakdowns.
When we talk about the history of the field, I can’t help but think that the influence of women as writers, as editors, as commenters, is not foregrounded the way the influence of men is, and particularly the influence of white Western men. Reviews and awards and discussion become part of and develop into the history of the genre.
For example, what about the influence of C.J. Cherryh on science fiction? Is she taken as seriously as male writers who are considered essential to the field? Would the modern SFF field be the same had she not existed and published so extensively?
Before the “new” gritty grimdark, the term “hard fantasy” was bandied about, which was meant to be fantasy that wasn’t all fluff and unicorns (often code for “girly”) but rather the rigorous fantasy equivalent of “hard sf.” This often was just another way of saying “written by men” but in fact I would like to see more discussion in the field of the influence of women writers in the shift of tone that took place across the 80s and into the 90s. For example, Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy (1982-83) is remarkably grim. Katharine Kerr’s Deverry sequence (1986-2009) follows the fortunes of princes and kingdoms with a sure historical hand. Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series (1988-1994) has a televisic vividness with out-size personalities, dynastic struggles, the best and the worst of human nature playing out across a big stage (she once termed it “Dynasty in the desert.”) The current popular mode of fantasy developed out of this shift. It did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.
The work being written and read today arises out of and is born into a genre that has been changing all along. Mostly I have more questions: Whose work was important in the history of the field that is now neglected? Who wrote works that influenced many writers who came after and yet is not being lauded as a foundational writer?
How exciting, therefore, to see this year a conference organized by Tananarive Due at Spelman College on the work of the great Octavia Butler (winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant the year her superb novel The Parable of the Sower did not win a Nebula Award).
I think it is important to make sure we do not diminish the work of women in the field, that we don’t let them slide away into oblivion or into that space where they are considered as of lesser importance, never as game changing or influential as male writers. There is a risk because of embedded historical and cultural defaults to assuming that male work means more and is by nature more influential in any field while meanwhile (see Lady Business and VIDA links, above)
So, yes, for me as someone who has been publishing since 1988, I see our genre as having today similar and related discussions to conversations that were going on thirty years ago and twenty years ago. While I do think that the nature and focus and complexities of these discussions have evolved over time (as they should), it’s important not to neglect how we reached this point. It is the history of the margins that gets swept under the rug while I read, yet again, an article about the genre-changing importance of yet another male writer’s body of work.
LB: How have the named women influenced your own work?
KE: In a sense almost everything I read influences me but obviously some influences flow deeply within the unseen architecture of my writing brain.
I’m not currently prepared to write about my major influences but I can say something about how each of the writers I mentioned above has contributed to the way I think about writing and the sff field.
I’ll run through them in backwards order to when I first read them:
I did not read Octavia Butler until after I was already published. What I learned from reading her is that it is possible to be humane and compassionate and utterly unflinching. She has the ability to force you not to look away while meanwhile digging into your deepest reserves of understanding. Butler teaches a vital lesson about speaking truth. I still judge all dystopic/post-collapse novels with The Parable of the Sower (1993) because of its clarity and that unflinching quality I mention above.
In 1988 Melanie Rawn’s first novel, Dragon Prince, came out the same month my first novel did (and did much better). First of all, Rawn has a fluid and readable style, very gripping. Additionally she married epic fantasy and the telenovela with almost seamless perfection, and I don’t mean that in any sort of denigrating way because people do tend to denigrate any form of melodramatic serialized fiction that is perceived as primarily being directed at women. Yet if male writers do the same thing, then they’re writing vividly realized characters in a complex political and personal landscape. I’m always surprised people don’t talk more about the Dragon Prince books. I think they played with epic fantasy in a way that had not been done quite that way before.
Katharine Kerr’s Deverry sequence (beginning with Daggerspell, 1986) is an epic fantasy series that reveals through the narrative how societies change over time. The land of Deverry (and other places within the world) is seen across hundreds of years. At no point would he reader mistake later times for earlier times: technology, social organization, political organization, sizes of towns, every thing is different. Events of the past have consequences in the future. It is a complete history and society but she reveals all this by weaving it into the narrative never by information dumping or pushing it into the reader’s face.
Reading Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy (1982-1983) was a bit of a watershed for me. It is a grim story and she never pulls back from the grimness. The world and the danger feels real and frightening. And there are women in all variety of roles, as I recall (it has been a long time since I have read it). As much as I loved reading the Pern books back in the day, Hambly (and other writers like her coming into the field in late 1970s and early 1980s) felt different, like the door had just suddenly opened a lot wider.
I read a lot of C. J. Cherryh in the 70s and 80s. She is almost certainly one of my major formative influences, and having said that I’m really not sure how to describe why that is the case and how it has interacted with and influenced my writing. She is a major writer in our field and I would love to see more critical perspective on her influence on the genre as a whole. I’m just not the one to do it.
LB: Your Crossroads trilogy is very much epic fantasy in scope, but its tone and focus—and particularly its ending—seem to resist some of the typical narratives of epic fantasy as a subgenre. Would you mind talking a bit about your process and intentions there?
KE: This answer has unavoidable spoilers (although I do my best to be vague) so proceed at your own risk if you are entirely spoiler-averse.
Crossroads is the trilogy I wrote to understand the backstory to a trilogy I originally intended to write but which is not yet written. I knew the main story I wanted to tell in Crossroads and how it would go before I started writing, so the process of writing the trilogy was to make sure everything in it helped set up the end.
In the largest sense Crossroads is about the stories we tell ourselves, both as individuals and as societies, to make sense of the world but also to justify the way it is and our place in it. The thread of “story”—of how the tales we tell build the architecture of any society—is built into the trilogy at all levels.
If I had to point to any specific inspiration for Crossroads it would be the story of the judge Samuel, in the Tanakh. In troubled times the people come to him and beg him to appoint a king because they believe only an earthly king as a ruler (rather than the rule of judges) can restore order, peace, and calm. Samuel explains why it is a terrible idea to appoint a king and that God is the only king people need, but the people keep insisting so, in the end and against his better judgment, he chooses Saul to become king but not without making it clear that the whole king thing will end badly and that they will come to regret it.
A (spoilerific) review by dolorosa12 expresses this element of Crossroads succinctly:
“What Elliott is actually doing in this series is interrogating the hackneyed old epic fantasy plot of ‘dispossessed man saves world and is thus its rightful ruler’. . . The myth of the chosen, rightful, just ruler is one such story with which people deceive themselves, and Elliott dismantles it.”
I also wanted to examine the thematic contrast not between the good fighting the evil but between those who build and those who destroy. Specifically I wanted to highlight the labor and lives of people, especially women, whose work and experiences are usually dismissed as trivial or unimportant (especially in epic tales of adventure and society-shaking change). One of my goals in writing Crossroads was to weave into the larger story the work of countless toiling women and men that is the foundation on which we live our daily lives in what peace and comfort we have.
I have long been interested in how war breaks down certain social systems while strengthening other bonds, for good or for ill. War’s repercussions spread over a far larger area than the ground covered by actual military units doing the fighting. In a story about endemic warfare breaking down a society it is easy to focus on the soldiers who are fighting to restore order. But rather than show vulnerable populations purely through the lens of how soldiers/fighters harm or help them, I chose to give visibility to how vulnerable populations see themselves and how they react, adapt, and shape their own future.
One of the major characters in the trilogy is a young woman named Mai. I’ve written my share of kick-ass female characters and will do so again. In Crossroads I wanted to write a female lead who could speak to some degree to the lives so many women have lived historically and by doing so show that all people have agency. Mai enters the story as a more traditionally “constrained female” character. This allowed me to unfold her story as a quietly strong person who struggles to make a life for herself coming out of a situation in which she has no power or authority.
There’s a deliberate contrast in Crossroads between the destruction and social breakdown furthered by the Star of Life army and the social reconstruction being done by Mai elsewhere. Mai’s is a story about re-building, about setting up households and creating continuity. I’m not trying to suggest that women ought to want to get married (any more than I am suggesting that men ought to want to get married); what I was trying to do is look at the reality of lives lived, both today and in the past, when the decision about setting up a household, the choice or accident of one’s relations and clan and partner, might perhaps become the biggest indicator of quality of adult life. Mai’s upbringing in a foreign country that is more patriarchal and hierarchically stratified than the rather more egalitarian Hundred she moves into influences how she adapts as she incorporates what the Hundred has to offer into her decisions and actions.
Because I knew the layers of story would be complicated, I worked very hard to wrap them all around a single plot spine, the one referenced above about the just, rightful ruler. By pulling every sub-plot back in toward that central spine I was able to confine the story to a trilogy.
That’s what is going on underneath. My main goal as always was to write an appealing and compelling story with an exciting plot, vivid characters, and cool stuff like flying horses and giant eagles partnered with human reeves as the local version of law enforcement officers.
LB: How do you see the thematic concerns of the Crossroads trilogy relating to the themes of your earlier (Crown of Stars series) and latest (Spiritwalker trilogy) work?
KE: I have to start this answer with a caveat that whatever I say is, in many ways, suspect. My intentions will not always dovetail with what readers see in the books. How I see the books in hindsight may not always mesh with what was going on when I wrote them.
For that matter I can have thematic concerns in mind as I write only to realize by the end of the book that something else is going on. On occasion I have read reviews that discuss an aspect of a book I never saw or intended but which makes better sense than my own interpretation.
Also I’m never only doing one thing (one reason the books tend to get so long).
I have often written about empire and revolution: not so much one or the other but the dynamic between consolidation and breakdown, stability and instability, the center and the periphery. Empire is never static. Nor are the peoples who benefit from or are afflicted by empire static. People can be suppressed, conquered, killed, co-opted, elevated, exploited, and embraced; people can resist, embrace, surrender, collaborate, fight, exploit, and die. Generally this is all going on at the same time. Each of my series tends to examine some aspect of this dynamic.
A universal element in all three fantasy series (and all my work) is the exploration of what happens when cultures come into contact. My mother is an immigrant. Having grown up in a house that had a bit of a foot in two worlds, as it were, I’ve long been interested in how cultures meet, conflict, change and influence each other, how people enter new places or leave their home, what they bring with them and what they leave behind and what aspects of themselves can and cannot be changed in that journey. That my father taught history and has a particular interest in immigration added to this fascination. It took me a long time to realize how much my parents’ stories have driven me, probably longer than it should have!
Crossroads has more of a classic “culture clash” feel, I think, and it is also more clearly about coming to a new land as well as how the locals react to and are influenced by newcomers. In Crown of Stars the many cultures of the world are constantly pushing against each other over decades and centuries through alliances, war, and intrigue; this history is so deeply woven together that repercussions from an ancient magical war return in the “present day” of the story with dire results. The Spiritwalker universe uses the mechanism of alternate history to speculate on how Earth cultures might have developed differently if thrown together in different ways from our own history: is the history we know inevitable? What might a world look like that had unfolded down another path?
Everything I write also focuses around how people function in the social space of the societies they live in. One of the repeated thematic concerns of Crown of Stars is the contrast between the outer seeming of a person, the face they show the world, and the inner heart which is the truth of what is really going on with them. The undercurrent of tale-telling in Crossroads is about the stories we tell ourselves about who is in what kind of role and how they fit in to the way we want to see the world, even if we end up finding out that we were wrong about what we thought we saw or that we were telling ourselves a story that turns out to be a lie. Certainly Andevai’s journey in the Spiritwalker trilogy is one of him struggling to come to terms with his deeply divided social spaces and status.
As well, related to social space, I do always include points of view and lives and activities that are not so often seen in fantasy novels because it matters to me that I envision on the page a wider view of life. It’s my personal small way of pushing back at the rigid and exclusionary messages I received in my youth about what and who were important to story; I want to write a broader vision.
But I suppose I could shorthand all of the above into one sentence:
Events and choices have consequences.
That’s what I write about, in all my work.
LB: You’ve been active in conversations about cultural appropriation (and non-Anglophone voices in SFF, if I recall right) on twitter and in the wider internet. What makes these conversations important to the genre, do you think, and how do you feel they’ve affected (if they have affected) your work?
KE: What I’m about to say isn’t my only perspective on this extremely complex conversation but it is one way out of many ways to think about what the conversation about cultural appropriation means to sff specifically.
In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes: “To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.”
He is talking about colonization, about outsiders defining the history and literature and culture of a group they are not part of but which they control through military or economic or educational means.
Speculative fiction (a term I use to encompass both science fiction and fantasy) has long defined itself as “the literature of ideas,” as a forward-thinking genre, as a genre that has no limits because it can imagine anything within the boundless fantastic.
Seen in this way, sff is all about definition because speculative fiction involves creating imagined spaces and imagining what is created in those spaces. The acts of imagination and creation are themselves acts of definition.
So one way the conversation about cultural appropriation relates specifically to the sff field is in definition: Who gets to define the future and the fantastic, and how? Whose voices will be heard and listened to?
I think there is no more important discussion in the field at this time because we have to live—and our field can only thrive—not in a static past whose genre history was based on a limited view of the world regardless but in the changing now that encompasses all of human experience.
In her recent Movements column at Strange Horizons, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz writes
“I think of how upheavals and eruptions must happen in order for us to reach that place where all of us have space to speak our words and share our stories.
I feel that it is necessary to reflect on the spaces we occupy and the space we wish to create for future generations. It is also necessary to consider carefully what will happen to the spaces we leave behind if we choose to vacate them. Creating space for ourselves always involves a certain amount of struggle and these spaces we now occupy have been won at a certain cost. . . .
I believe that examining and dissecting our responses and acknowledging our own biases and failures will turn us into better readers and more thoughtful individuals and writers.”
On a personal level this is certainly my hope: to become a better reader and a more thoughtful individual and writer.
LB: Sixth and final question: what will we see next after the end of the Spiritwalker trilogy? What are you working on now?
KE: I am working on book one of an epic fantasy trilogy for Orbit Books. It’s writing quickly because I know the story well, and I’m really enjoying being back in the multiple third person point of view landscape (although I also loved writing in Cat’s first person voice).
I am also working on a YA fantasy for Little Brown Books for Young Readers. The industry announcement of the sale describes it thusly: “A girl’s skill at a forbidden sport shakes the foundations of a rigid aristocracy.” That’s a decent assessment of the plot although it barely scrapes the surface of what the book is actually about. My pitch line goes like this: “Little Women meets the Count of Monte Cristo in a fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt.”
I’m seriously excited about both projects. No publication date set in either.
Finally I want to mention a project that I think of as a sort of capstone to the Spiritwalker Trilogy: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal.
For years as she grew out of innocent childhood and into budding womanhood, Beatrice Hassi Barahal had imagined a kiss. In a secret journal she wrote about her heartfelt longings and intimate adventures.
Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, the journal did not remain secret.
You can read it now. And you won’t be the only one who did.
For quite a while I have wanted to tell Bee’s version of events in the trilogy, with illustrations because Bee is an artist, but I didn’t quite know how to do so and writing an entire novella seemed too daunting while I was still working on Cold Steel. Instead I decided to write a short chapbook (a short story with illustrations). I was fortunate enough to be able to commission the amazingly fabulous (and Hugo-nominated) Julie Dillon to do 29 sketches. My daughter Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein is doing the Art Direction and Production, and Joseph Gary Eichstaedt, a freshly-minted art school graduate, is doing the layout and design. We’ll be producing it ourselves under the auspices of The Press of the Shiny Ideas Clutch (you’ll get the joke if you’ve read the books).
Both print and ebook versions should be available by the time this interview is posted. I’ve never done anything like this before because the story works through its interaction with the illustrations, and although I have panicked more than once during this process, it has otherwise been wonderful. So much so that I am seriously contemplating a collection of short fiction (mostly sans illustrations but maybe with some) set in the Spiritwalker universe. But that’s another story.