Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear plays in all of your favorite genres: Steles of the Sky, the conclusion to her epic fantasy Eternal Sky trilogy, was one of your favorite books of 2014; her new novel Karen Memory is a rollicking steampunk Western adventure yarn; her short story “This Chance Planet” takes us into a near-science fiction future while retaining familiar mythology.
In a recent AMA on Reddit’s r/fantasy subreddit, Bear discusses how she builds these unique worlds by importing conventions of one genre into another; drops hints about the next Eternal Sky trilogy; calls dibs on past-tense verb/adjective titles; and shares what her second choice for animal surname would be (Bulfinch). And those are only the short answers! Read on for the AMA highlights.
On Mashing Up Genres, Cultures, and Conventions:
Bear had a theory for why she delves so much into certain mythologies and eras:
I’m Swedish and Finnish on my mom’s side, and my grandparents were of the generation that left all their culture behind when they emigrated. So I think those books, and the Norse aspect of the Iskryne, are derived from my attempts to learn about my own heritage. Also, Norse myth is so freaking fascinating. And we’ve forgotten that it’s in a very real way the foundation of modern western fantasy, via Tolkien and Poul Anderson!
Also, I am a child of the 80s. So it seemed totally natural to blend that with 80s post-apocalyptic technofantasy. Basically, the foundation of my entire aesthetic is Thundarr the Barbarian and the Scandal “The Warrior” video.
She also shared her secret to crossing genres in her writing:
I actually play games with myself where I steal the conventions of one genre and import them into another. So, for example, Undertow is a caper novel crossed with a planetary romance. And Dust is a gothic novel in space. (A great joking definition of the gothic novel is a love story between a girl and an evil house. In this case, the evil house is an insane generation ship.)
So, um. I guess I hold the narrative as a story in one hand, and the genre structures in the other and try to braid them so they support each other? Ish?
Not surprising, since Bear described her SFF upbringing thusly:
It turns out that I don’t think in terms of subgenre the way some of my colleagues do. I grew up in a family with four adult SF fans, and I was steeped in all their stuff—and one of my favorite authors was Zelazny, who had an absolute disregard for subgenre, as near as I can tell. So, um, it never really crystallized for me emotionally that there was a difference between Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward. It was all Stuff I Liked.
Max Gladstone wanted to know what Bear’s worldbuilding process is, but it turns out she subscribes to a different belief system:
I am a firm believer in toolboxes rather than processes. I use whatever works, and if it’s not working I change to something else. Generally, I read extensively in my setting beforehand, and keep reading while I’m working. I find that literature by people in the cultures I’m working in (even in translation) helps as much, or more, as books about those cultures. But basically, I use any tactic that works and try not to fetishize my approach or get too enamored of or committed to false binaries.
On Turning Real-Life Historical Figures into Fictional Characters:
Similarly, idyllic_odd asked about how Bear pulls characters from their real-world myths or legends with regards to research and properly representing the eras and cultures from which these figures come. She laid out her mindset:
I do feel a real duty of care when I use historical people. More modern ones, even more so—having written versions of Sonny Liston, Elvis Presley, and Richard Feynman—among others—a thing that was always in my head when I did it was that these people had friends and/or children alive. And I had to consider the fact that I was writing a fictional version of a person whose daughter might read my book. I do in fact feel like that’s a moral obligation, just as I feel I have a moral obligation to marginalized characters, even when there’s a disclaimer at the front that says, “all persons are used in a fictional manner.”
(When I am writing, for example, an intersexed character, I feel very aware that this person is someone who is rarely represented in fiction, and the thing I bear in mind is that somewhere there is a 12-year-old kid who has never seen themself represented in a story before, and I don’t want to break that kid’s heart by telling them that they’re not the equal of everybody else in the story. Because I’ve been a similar rarely-represented kid. I feel like as we build a body of representation, we solve this problem—if there are lesbians as an unremarked part of narrative, then it stops being important if one is a villain, say, because not all of them are villains.)
Marlowe was a funny one, because I came into the research for The Stratford Man with the basic understanding of Marlowe that any English lit major gets. And my research revealed to me that this dude had been the victim of the the biggest smear campaign up until Ulysses S. Grant. And then he turned into one of those characters who will not shut up.
I’ve said many times that books are easier when you have characters that run towards the sound of gunfire. And, also, talk about compulsively. My version of Marlowe was one of those. Likewise, Jenny Casey and Karen Memery. God bless the talkers. They make up for the ones like the One-Eyed Jack and Shakespeare that I had to pull the story out of with pliers.
On Argument as Inspiration:
Bear summed up for Omnipraetor where she draws inspiration for her short stories:
Any place I can! News stories, things I read in history books, wild ideas, things people say I want to argue with. Anything at all!
From Role-Playing to Writing:
It would seem that Bear also draws some inspiration from her years of role-playing games; elsewhere in the thread, she comments that to write characters, “I just role-play them in my head.” When asked which RPG character has stuck with her, she told Redditors about her Pathfinder battle cleric:
My Pathfinder character is a battle cleric, which I find really fun to role-play. They’re an intersex, interspecies person who quite naturally wound up a priest of the local trickster god. The campaign is a long-running one with my friends in Fall River, home of Lizzie Borden and the chow mein sandwich (HI GUYS!) which is currently climaxing after seven-odd years in… explaining civics to an orcish warlord. It, um. Suits me.
She also shared her favorite RPG experience:
My favorite RPG moment was not actually even mine. It involved a troll capturing one of the party rangers (my friend TJ, who had about two hit points left) and holding him up by the ankle while demanding we surrender. The other ranger (my friend Britt) said, “We never liked him anyway,” and shot him from her longbow.
…With an arrow she’d smeared with healing ointment. So she did 1d6 points of damage and healed 2d6. The troll dropped him, assuming he was dead, and he stabbed it in the back as soon as we engaged it. ;)
On Her Reading Habits:
When MightyIsobel asked if Bear liked to read “Literature (whatever that means),” she responded:
I like to read, period. As for favorite in the literay subgenre: Christopher Marlowe, Gregory Corso, Charlotte Bronte, Fay Weldon, Margaret Atwood, Yukio Mishima, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Reading recent SFF releases has been difficult for her, but she was still able to call out several authors:
I’ve been reading for awards the past two years, and it’s eaten up a lot of my attention. However, I really liked recent books by Max Gladstone, Karen Lord, Monica Byrne, and Jo Walton!
The authors she reads for pure enjoyment:
Barbara Hambly, Peter Beagle, Nnedi Okorafor, Robin McKinley, Emma Bull, Scott Lynch (I know, but it’s true), Amanda Downum, Diane Duane, Aliette de Bodard, Max Gladstone, Walter Mosley…
And of course, the proverbial three books to bring on a desert island:
How Writers are Perceived:
wyrdwoodwitch: A bit more of a personal question, but I’ve been curious about this for a long time… Do you find it difficult, being “Scott Lynch’s girlfriend?” I love your work separately and actually started reading your stuff earlier, but you’re so linked and Scott is ostensibly more “successful” and… just curious!
EB: Scott and I have a deal where I bring home the Hugos and he brings home the foreign rights sales… I don’t think either one of us would mind dividing those spoils a little more equally, though.
Seriously, I think he’s one of the finest writers in the genre right now, and it frustrates me that because he’s seen as a “commercial” fantasist, he doesn’t always get the critical recognition he richly deserves for the nuanced and thematically complicated books he writes. I remind myself, though, that writers like Shakespeare and Dickens were scorned in their day as popular entertainers.
As for me, as my agent says, I’m a “critical darling,” and here I am toiling in the midlist. At least I’m in the midlist with a collection of shiny rocket ships, though! Which is not to be sneered at by any means.
tl:dr: one thing writers cannot control is how we are perceived, really. We just do the work as best we can and hope it finds a readership, and that’s as much luck as skill.