Sherwood Smith hardly needs introduction. Her novels—for young readers and adults alike—have been appearing in print since 1990. She’s co-written space opera with Dave Trowbridge, collaborated with Andre Norton in Norton’s Solar Queen and Time Trader series, written in Frank L. Baum’s Oz, as well as Ruritanian adventures and epic fantasy, the most recent of which is Banner of the Damned. She also belongs to the Book View Café publishing co-op.
She’s graciously agreed to answer a few questions for this column. I think it’d be a tad uncivil to preface the conversation with a critical discussion of her work. Perhaps we shall have one later, when it’ll seem less ungracious? (Do you want a critical discussion, Gentle Readers?)
But in the meanwhile, fair or foul reader (but where’s the difference?), let’s get to the interesting bits!
First question. 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. (And please feel free to interpret the question as broadly or as narrowly as you please.) Have you seen much change over time?
SS: This is so difficult to answer succinctly.
Authors and (to an extent) characters first.
Female authors were still using male names when I was young, or they were neatly shoehorned into “women’s books” except for those few that men could always point at when the disparity was pointed out. And so many of them wrote for the male gaze. So in that sense, yes, I perceive a shift.
I think enough phosphors have been spilled about lists of great female authors to counteract these other lists of “The Greatest Works of SF of the 20th Century” that contain all male names. More interesting to me are the patterns that I perceive around me, in spite of the obvious limitation. I realize that my patterns will not be your patterns, and where our patterns overlap, [insert male name here] won’t see anything at all.
That said, I rejoice when I observe younger men reading books written by women, and recommending them along with male-written books, especially when they talk about them without the qualifiers I grew up with that put women’s work in a separate category from real work.
Second part of women as authors: Let me throw out a pattern that I have noticed—or think I have noticed—and see what you think.
Jane Austen was aware of it two hundred years ago, when she tossed the more conventional ending to her novel Persuasion, and inserted in the middle of the climax a remarkable conversation about male and female emotions, with this bit about history:
“But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse… Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”
Then there’s the early part of Northanger Abbey, which I think she was in the process of rewriting before she got too ill, there is such an astonishing qualitative difference between the first half and the second. But that’s another discussion.
The seventeen-year-old protagonist, Catherine, is walking with a more sophisticated young couple, talking about novels, and how people profess to despise novels in preference to Works of Worth. After Miss Tilney professes to like works of history, “real solemn history,” Catherine bursts out:
I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilence in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.
My theory is that Austen, along with Sir Walter Scott, invented the modern novel. But Austen was responsible for depicting the female gaze as important as that of the males. Her social satire was so sharp, so true to human behavior, that she made it work for both male and female readers.
I have another theory, that novels whose characters are as strong as the speculative ideas are remembered longer than novels whose characters are stick figures in service of the speculative ideas, once those ideas become incorporated into mainstream culture. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein straddles the boundary: Though the plot structure is at best uneven, and some of the story is incoherent (as one might expect from a teenager whose main experience of life still relied on stock situations of gothic novels) the novels succeeds where the then-startling futuristic ideas were translated out into characters’ emotional and moral actions.
So, the pattern. Here comes a gross generalization, which naturally will cause exceptions to spring to mind, but I’m putting it forward for discussion purposes: that though both male and female writers extrapolated change—political, philosophical, and social—through novels, men tended to set up stick figures in service of the idea, rather closer to what Catherine complained about. Women tended to bury the ideas, sometimes equally radical ideas, more covertly in the interactions of characters. And still do. Look at the startling, almost breathtaking evolution of romance (and Romance) over the past forty years.
Women as characters.
There is a lot of discussion going on with respect to females on cover art (and female fashion) being aimed at the male gaze, for example, women showing more skin than males. Their poses on book covers are more obviously provocative.
The discussion gets muddied when it is pointed out that women choose to dress with a lot of bare skin. Look at bride gowns where the woman is bare from the bodice up, while the guy has two to three layers. Four, if you count the tie. Where the change (too slow) is happening is in the judgment aspect, as seen in fiction. Though sexual violence has pretty much gone one way all through history, the labels of “evil, whore, sinful” have landed more often on female characters, the male half of any sexual encounter, whether the woman wanted it or not, getting away with a free pass.
There are also the questions of agency, as more women move out of the domestic sphere into the general work force. More women are in positions of authority. What is interesting to me is looking at how male and female writers depict men who come in behind to fill those domestic duties deal with personal and cultural lack of respect for doing what is lingeringly perceived as “women’s work.”
In my generation, if a man washes the dishes, the older women still tend to cluster around and coo and thank him and praise him. But if a woman washes the dishes, it’s business as usual, even if both man and woman have tough office jobs. How these things translate out in novels, especially spec fic novels, makes for interesting cultural reflection.
As fans and commenters:
The history of fan fiction demonstrates how efficient, and effective, women have been at pooling together to get what they want out of their stories. It’s been a largely female-driven world.
Set it within the context of the culture at large, and we discover how long fan fiction went unnoticed, and when noticed, despised. Yet it has grown exponentially. There is still no money in it, except with what’s called “filing the serial numbers off.” The question of copyright respect caused this juggernaut of literary innovation to slide straight under the radar for years. Where there is money there is power. But in literary and social currency, the effect I think is far more widespread than anyone has noticed until relatively recently, and that is only gaining. For example, look at successful fan fiction writers who, when they sold their first original novel, went straight to bestseller first crack out of the bag. They didn’t have to build an audience. That audience was right there, waiting to spend money.
In your Sartorias-deles books, most recently Banner of the Damned, you write about societies which are to all appearances sexuality-neutral. I can’t recall coming across a character who ran into societal difficulties by not being preferentially heterosexual. (Thank you for that, by the way.) Emras, the protagonist of Banner, is asexual. Can you tell us a little about what led you to make these choices in your writing?
I started writing about that world when I was eight, when out of my dreams came a gang of girls who had adventures. When I got to be a teen, I was still writing about them, and began discovering the turtles beneath the turtles, that is, wrestling with world-building questions. Like, how it was that girls could adventure there without the problems of girls here? I answered that when I traveled alone around Europe as a 20 year old, and ran into those problems (including having to defend my own life with the switchblade I bought in Madrid): Because there was no rape.
Why was there no rape? It took another decade or two to figure out that it had to do with fundamental cultural changes millennia ago, and also with what people would really do if they discovered magic. My starting point: Not every discovery is about weaponry, it’s also about quality of life. And, say, if women discovered magic first, they would probably use it to defend themselves as well as to make their labor easier. It would give them leverage, permitting cultural and social change.
Supposing, too, that powerful women who control the propagation of magic take steps that they feel is beneficial in the long run, and institute a secret program of selective murder? Rapists, especially those with a taste for underage or non-consensual sex, would be turned into stones or trees. These individuals wouldn’t be able to pass on the proclivity, whether genetic or cultural or familial.
As for homosexuality, back to my teens. I thought when I was fifteen or so, there are no gays in my world. But… what about the characters who are drawn to their own gender? (Like many writers, my character discovery is like watching through a window. I don’t go shopping for character traits and hook it all up. Tried, doesn’t work, that is, they don’t come to life in my head.) I finally realized that it wasn’t homosexuality that the world didn’t have, it was a problem with it. Ditto the idea of virginity as a commodity. Sex became another part of the human experience when the double standard was lifted—all other aspects being equal.
When there is long-term oppression, well, think of rat behavior in cages. There are some pockets of weird gender stuff going on, but that’s for other stories.
And sometimes sex isn’t part of the human experience, as in the case of Emras. That did dismay me, because I was (and am) afraid that most readers won’t want to follow an asexual character. The story stalled for about six months while I tried to figure out why the relationships weren’t coalescing. (See above about characters and windows.) When I finally realized that her relationships were all emotional, not physical, the entire rest of the book cascaded into place.
In Coronets and Steel, you take some liberties with the geography of Europe. If you put Dobrenica on a map, where would it be?
It’s a moveable feast, since after all, one can mess with time and space in fantasy. But it’s roughly where Hungary, Poland, and Russia intersect. (That is up to the reader to define, as actual history has also moved those borders around fairly often.)
Somewhere in the modern Ukraine, then? (I have to admit that mostly I am asking this question for my own curiosity’s sake.)
More toward Belarus, actually. (The decision to keep it liminal was deliberate—those books were only fun to write if everything was liminal, though appearing conservative on top due to the Ruritanian conceit.)
Coronets and Steel and Blood Spirits mix modernity and “old-fashioned” elements. How did you approach the worldbuilding here? (I can’t say I didn’t find it a bit troubling to see X Eastern European country positioned as romantically slightly “backward.” But I have been accused of over-sensitivity before, and doubtless it is true in this case.)
Well, part of the problem is that the first draft was written in 1985. At that time, all that I could find out about the area was limited. And as far as publishing was concerned, genres didn’t mix, so it got shelved. When I came to rewrite it, dynamic changes had been happening all over Europe. Was a “Ruritania” even possible anymore? Was it a nasty form of colonialism? I kept getting different answers as I corresponded with Germans and a few English-speaking people beyond the German borders. Finally I figured, it’s escapism, so why sweat it so hard? Second, I could play around with liminality, that is the borderlands of geography, of culture, of paradigms, of reality. The semblance of order being imposed over the typically messy details of human life. Like, what if the Last Descendant of The Royal Family really is a bastard by law? What happens when an only child discovers relatives? Etc. At the same time I didn’t want to lose the fairy tale feel of Ruritania, so I made no attempt to lock the made up country to any real polity, but kept it one step out of geography as well as out of time.
The other thing I tried to do with the outlook was to stay far, far away from “America and its way of life is enlightenment!” and more like, “America is totally irrelevant.”
You write middle grade books as well as big fantasies. Do you find that there is a different set of skills involved in writing for a younger (or conversely, an older) audience? Are there themes and concerns you bring to your adult books that you skirt more lightly around in the books for younger readers?
I don’t know about a different set of skills. Though that might be a good way to approach the question. It’s just that, being a visually oriented writer, I have trouble with getting my head around what I perceive as mechanics. If I see a story from a kid’s eye view, then what shapes that story is how kids look at the world. (In the case of the Sartorias-deles stories, I have the versions I wrote as a kid, and I try to keep that perspective.) So adult themes aren’t in question, except for brief spurts of curiosity: Most ten year olds are focused on other kids, not on adults and what they may or may not be doing in the back of the Buick. (Though some might think it gaspingly funny if they see a butt stick in the air!) How a kid looks at an adult villain is different than how an adult looks at them. How a kid looks at love is different before puberty, during, and after.
That said, there are decisions one must make, like the use of swear words and so forth. Not so much for YA, these days. Pretty much anything goes, as the top end of YA has totally blown the lid. But, at least for now, sprinkling a lot of “fucks” through a middle grade novel is a shift in tone that a writer probably should think about. Ditto for rape and extremes of graphic violence.
For a penultimate question: What do you think are the most interesting trends or developments in recent fantasy?
Short answer! Women.
I love the things people like Megan Whalen Turner and Kate Elliott and Jo Walton and N. K. Jemisin and Andrea Hairston are doing—and for the mythic, people like Greer Gilman and Theodora Goss and Shweta Narayan, just to name a very few. People who claim that fantasy is nothing but farm boys with “speshull powers” becoming king are not paying attention.
I’m not familiar with all the names you mention*—would you care to expand on that slightly? If not, we can move on to the ultimate question, which is: What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
*(LB: I am working on fixing my ignorance, trust me.)
SS: After about fifty tries to explain each fairly, and deleting same because it was getting far longer than the spew I already sent you, I think the best thing to say is that each of these writers is doing what I think are interesting things with fantasy, narrative, female characters, tropes, voice.
My stuff: Summer, The Spy Princess, kids and revolution, from Viking, and fall, Revenant Eye from DAW, which goes back to Napoleonic times for some romping on the edges of cultures and ideas.
Ladies, gentlemen, honourable others: Sherwood Smith.