Kari Sperring is the author of two novels from DAW, Living With Ghosts and the very excellent The Grass King’s Concubine. In her other life, as historian K.L. Maund, she’s taught medieval topics for several UK universities and written nonfiction for both specialist and general audiences. She’s graciously agreed to let herself be interrogated on a number of topics today…
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. I know you’ve been involved with British fandom for some years: have you seen change over time?
Kari Sperring: That’s actually quite difficult to answer, because it’s a big, complex issue and the way women are treated varies within it quite a lot.
I have been around in UK SF fandom a long time—I went to my first con when I was 13. It was a one-day Star Trek con, and at the time those were mainly female, as were the clubs that I joined. So my first exposure to SF (outside of books) was to a community in which women were the centre. And these were fabulous women, too, and they were nearly all SF fans as well as Trek fans. They were welcoming and supportive to a young teen, recommending books and writers, talking to me about the books I liked and supportive of each other—and me—as writers and critics and fanzine editors. There were a handful of men, but I didn’t interact with them, much, and they spoke to me as to a younger sister or a niece. In my nearly 10 years of Trek-con going, I can recall only two incidents when men made me uncomfortable and they were both in my late teens, and both very minor. I met the Leicester SF club via Trek fandom, too. That was mainly made up of younger men, but the chair was a woman who I knew, and again I experienced it as quite safe.
This was the very end of the 70s. When I went off to university, I joined the SF society, expecting something like the Leicester group. At that point, the gender balance at my university was 5:1 in favour of men, but the SF society was more like 15:1. That was weird. I was a young 18 and didn’t really know how to deal with some of the attention I got. With one exception, I don’t think any of these young men meant to worry me: they were as naive as I was, and many had been to all-male schools and had no sisters. But what I learnt from this, and, in the next few years via mainstream UK SF fandom was that I was somewhere between a novelty and prey. Women were fairly few in fandom at that time, and any new woman was descended on, rather, and hovered at, and not necessarily listened to as carefully as men. There were a number of incidents during the 80s that were very scary—I won’t rehearse them here—and I was not the only women to have such experiences. I should emphasise, though, that most of the men were perfectly decent to me and I made friends then who I still have today.
What was absent—or what I failed to find—was a writing culture. There were other writers in the university group, but we had a sub-group and were discouraged from talking writing outside it. And, within both that group and wider SF fandom, it felt harder as a woman to gain any kind of acceptance as a writer. Real talent was male, and probably a scientist. Up to then, I’d found it easy to talk writing, but at some point in my 20s I stopped, apart from with a couple of close, female writer friends. When men broke into print, it was a great event. When a women friend did… I can recall a lot of sarcastic comments and suggestions that she probably wasn’t much good from wider fandom, but not much else. This didn’t happen to me, when I was published: UK fandom have been wonderfully supportive and kind, but I still hear from other women that new female writers face a hard time.
I’m not blaming UK fandom for this, however. It’s part of a much wider social problem. Fandom itself has become much more gender-balanced over the years, and, thanks to hard and consistent work by women and supportive men, a much safer environment and more comfortable for women. I talk to younger women a lot, and they tell me they experience rather less unwanted attention that I and other women of my generation did. And that’s great. I think UK fandom has worked hard on this, and, while we’re not perfect—nothing ever is—we’ve moved a long way from the culture of the 1980s.
Some of that is down to wider social change—the sort of casual harassment and denigration of women that was considered normal and even funny in the 70s and 80s is now much more suspect (look at an old sitcom, or even something like Monty Python and you’ll see this very clearly.)
But there are still problems rooted in western culture around female success and female ambition. And women are still objectified in ways that are distressing and scary. We are still programmed on some level to listen to men more than to women, to respect male opinion and to accept male success and male self-promotion. Women are still expected to be more diffident, quieter, more submissive and more self-effacing. And their abilities are more likely to be questioned or denied. In terms of fiction, one thing I see too much of is the damaged heroine. Male protagonists can be strong and powerful and forceful without any shadow or question or broken back-story. Women, not so much: the kickass heroine is all too often really a victim of some kind: in order to be strong, she has first to have been abused in some way. She often has a male teacher, too. She needs a reason, an excuse for her strength, because we aren’t comfortable with the idea of women being competent just by themselves. It’s almost expected—a while back, someone asked writer Seanan McGuire when her character Toby Daye would be raped. When, not if—the questioner took it for granted that rape is the destiny of any strong woman. I find that scary and depressing. And I’d like to know if anyone ever asked David Weber a similar question about Honor Harrington, because I suspect the gender of the author has as much to do with it as the gender of the character. Grim-dark fantasy focuses a lot on female suffering—another very old trope of which I’m very tired, going all the way back to Patient Griselda and beyond. Female suffering remains a cultural symbol for social break-down and a stage in the path of male enlightenment in too many stories. Women face more problems than men in getting into print—there is a persistent meme that SF by women doesn’t sell, at least in the UK, and female writer after female writer tells stories of being encouraged towards more feminine forms of writing. Men get more of the promotional budget—the promo tables and so forth in bookshops have far more books by men than women. This isn’t because publishers are evil—they’re not, far from it. Editors want all their writers to do well. It’s a social thing: we are still conditioned to think of the men first, to praise the men, to notice the men. A while ago, I started a hashtag on twitter—#womentoread—in response to a table I’d seen promoting epic fantasy, which had precisely one female author of epic fantasy on it, and to the statistics on the under-reviewing of SFF by women. The response was interesting: the vast majority of those who joined in and kept going were women. Only a handful of men did likewise—and they were great. But most of the men seemed not to notice (including some who had been deploring the review stats earlier in the day). It’s not that these are bad people; far from it. It’s that we live in a culture which makes women and the problems women face less visible, less important. It wasn’t relevant to them; they may not have noticed it was happening.
There are more of us now, and we are noisier and carve out more space. I’m not sure that even 20 years ago women would have felt as able to draw attention to some of the issues around publicity, for instance. There are still too many examples of casual sexism or gender bias. And this is doubled and redoubled if you are a women of colour, or a women with a disability, or LGBT. It’s a work in progress, and, like all such, it has setbacks for cultural reasons. It’s slow, but I think we are changing.
LB: The Grass King’s Concubine, your second book, is a little different to the usual run of second-world fantasy. Both its magical and “ordinary” worlds/kingdoms are societies in flux: there is, dare I say it, a progressive dynamic at work. Would you share some of the thoughts and processes that led you to this sort of thing?
KS: I don’t think a lot about my writing process—or not consciously, anyway—so this is surprisingly tricky to answer. It was only after a long conversation I had yesterday with a former student (about early Scandinavian royal dynasties and their naming patterns, and about the nature of multiple kingship states) that I worked out to answer… But I think it’s probably something to do with my background as a historian. I specialize in early mediaeval Britain, with a sideline in early mediaeval Scandinavia, and the cultures and societies I study are almost continuously in flux. So my inner construct of society is less in terms of an institution than a dynamic—a continuous process of adaptation and alteration and response. Sometimes this process is rapid and revolutionary, sometimes it’s slow and gradual and almost unnoticeable to those at its centre. In Grass King, the Brass City is on the brink of upheaval and rapid change, while WorldBelow has changed in small slow steps. But I didn’t write it that way consciously, as far as I can remember. I wrote them that way because, on the one hand, WorldBelow is the domain of earth and I imagine earth motion as, most usually, very slow and stately.
On the other hand, revolutions interest me, and class interests me, and I wanted to write about someone coming to recognise her privilege and position and learning to identify with and support the goals of people not like herself. I am a very untidy writer, and I often don’t know what I’m doing in terms of theme and structure until I’ve finished—I have an idea of the next scene or two, of a few highlights and of the sort of place the story ends and that’s it when I start a book. I imagine the writing process itself as a sort of composting—the back of my brain is a pile of different ideas, things that interest me, things I’ve read and seen and wondered about, and I kick book-related questions to it and leave them to mulch down.
LB: What most interests you in writing—and reading—SFF ? What do you enjoy most, or least?
KS: I love to read—writing is a bit more conflicted, as some days it will turn into treacle-mining—and I love to learn, so for me, SFF is all about exploration, about looking for the different, the alternative, the Other. As a reader I love to be challenged, to be made to think about the ways I’ve been taught and the things I know and to re-frame and question them. Like a lot of people around my age, my introduction to SF was via the juvenile novels of Heinlein and Andre Norton and what grabbed me was the sense of finding myself somewhere that seemed utterly new and strange. I particularly loved the Andre Norton novels in which her characters found themselves literally living the lives of aliens and to this day, I read to get outside myself. I try to do that in writing, too, though I’m never sure how well I do it. But as both reader and writer, I am always asking myself what things are like from the other viewpoint, the other space.
Having said that, there are some tropes and themes that appeal to me more than others. I love space opera, especially when it has a positive, constructive spin, as with the novels of Julie E Czerneda and Lisanne Norman, and Kate Elliot’s Jaran series. Complex cultures which question our own western certainties, as in the work of Jack Vance, Iain M. Banks and Aliette de Bodard. Strange stuff—books like Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series, which use the trappings of urban fantasy to raise complex issues about cosmology, the creation of autonomy, both personal and social, and our assumptions about each other, or the SF of Liz Williams, which is wonderfully, richly, strange. In fantasy, I go for novels of friendship and magic—Fritz Leiber, Violette Malan, Sherwood Smith; anything about mages’ colleges, which is Kari catnip (LeGuin, Barbara Hambly, Juliet E. McKenna); and again, complex worlds—Sherwood Smith again, Tanith Lee, Steven Brust, Judith Tarr and the unfairly overshadowed Sheila Gilluly. I don’t particularly like epic fantasy—I read Lord of the Rings young, and I’m a mediaevalist by training, and so a lot of it I find vaguely disappointing, and I’m not a huge fan of vampires and zombies. I do enjoy fiction that sits on the boundary of urban fantasy and crime, though, like C E Murphy’s books, and Laura Anne Gilman’s.
Things I don’t like—zombies. They really, really squick me and I don’t enjoy scaring myself. The kind of hard SF that focuses on computers and technology very tightly; shoot-em ups of any kind; and books set at sea. I can’t really account for the latter: I’ve read very good books about pirates and naval captains, within and without SFF , but somehow they just don’t work for me. It isn’t that I get seasick – I don’t—or that I don’t like books with small character lists. It’s just a brain quirk.
As to what I like to write… I’m incurably butterfly-minded and, as I said, I love to learn. My mother taught me very young that if I had a question, the answer was probably somewhere in a book and as a result I am an omnivorous and eclectic reader. Things which are long-term interests of mine, in writing terms, are ghosts, people who aren’t human or who are differently human, social orders and hierarchies, sword-fights, and twisty, Dumas-style plots with missing heirs, fatal secrets, hidden orders and so forth. Right now, I’m writing about revolution, about the connection between wealth and power, social class, madness and the sacrifices demanded by upholding principles. The next project, however, is hooked on another set of interests that are occupying me right now—ritual magic, phlogiston and ether, magical orders and some less well known pieces of Welsh mythology and history.
LB: Speaking of history. In recent years the online conversation has turned more than once to issues of cultural appropriation and of historical realism in fantasy. How do you see the relationship between fantasy and history, between fantasy, history, myth, and culture?
KS: There are many histories, told by many peoples in many different ways, and those histories have different values and meanings and roles and functions at different times, in different places, to different people. So this is complex. A lot of fantasy tends to default to what is often described as a sort of default mediaeval Britain or Europe—kings, castles, knights, battles for land and power, with tapestries and swords and a generic pre-industrial level of technology. That’s the easy setting, I suppose. But it’s problematic for all sorts of reasons. First of all, it elides and erases the bulk of the world and particularly the non-white, non-western European world. The absence of other pasts undermines the importance, the innovations, the experiences and depth of other peoples and cultures. It accepts a damaging narrative of the past which sees only white, western experiences and achievements as valid and significant. It omits the greater part of the world from the realm of imagination.
And then there’s appropriation. It’s increasingly fashionable to adorn fantasies with myths, ideas, images and practices drawn from cultures that are not those of the writer. Now, there are authors who do this with care and respect and in full awareness of how they may fail, and that’s good. But there are also fantasies which just plunder for cool stuff. When that author is white and western, this just repeats the pattern of colonialism and imperialism—the dominant classes helping themselves to anything they like the look of, without care or thought. It dispossesses people of their heritage, it removes them from the centre of their narratives to the fringes, it makes everything all about that dominant culture. Myths have meaning, even if they are ancient and apparently without modern function: they are part of how a culture has shaped and defined and understood itself. Sometimes, myths and stories may be all a people have left.
The same is true of history. While the truism is that history is written by the victors, in fact other histories are often also preserved, if only in fragments and corners—to take a British example, the dominant narrative of the Norman Conquest is that of the Normans, preserved in the best known written sources of the period. But the traces of the Anglo-Saxon narrative are there too and can be found, in surviving Anglo-Saxon texts and in chronicles from Wales and Ireland (and the latter record the stories those peoples told of that event and what it meant to them, if anything). Victor narratives are easy, but they are only one side and they are often outsider accounts—the versions of those on top of the hierarchy of power. Insider narratives matter hugely and should be respected: the outsider should not be assumed to be the expert or the last word. And neither history nor culture are theme parks for outsiders to play in.
Fantasy, of course, makes up worlds and cultures, but it doesn’t do this in a vacuum. Writers bring their assumptions and experiences and privileges to their work, inevitably. Good fantasy is written in full consciousness of this, in full awareness of the intersection of reality and imagination. Research is good, yes, but it needs to be accompanied by mindfulness and respect. Writers inevitable make mistakes: I know I do, all the time. But it’s a question, as has been said before, of trying, failing, trying again and failing better, over and over.
And fantasy is a great place to raise questions like these. A fantasy novel can present insider and outside narratives, examine colonialism and imperialism and race and gender and ownership of cultural, social and material property. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death does that brilliantly, and so does Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City.
LB: What are you working on now? What might we expect you to work on in the future? Is there anything you’d like to take the opportunity to say?
KS: Right now, I’m working on the rewrites to the sequel to The Grass King’s Concubine. It’s set in the Brass City after they [the characters] return there. It’s about class and revolution and industrialisation and madness and jealousy. It focuses on two of the supporting characters from Grass King, Liyan, who is fire-in-earth and is fascinated by the great industrial engines of the Brass City, and Qiaqia, who used to be human long ago and is on a quest for her lost humanity. It also ties back to my first novel Living With Ghosts. And Aude and Jehan are in it, too.
What else? I’m working on a couple of short stories for anthologies. And I’m doing the research reading for a new novel, which will be SF, in the mode of David Lindsay and C S Lewis—a sort of planetary romance, but with occult overtones. And I’m about two-thirds of the way through a detective novel set in ninth century Wales, which draws on my expertise as a historian of the Celtic-Speaking Peoples.
Thank you everyone for reading this interview. And keep reading—books, short stories, articles, everything. Words are one of the ways we learn the world.