Ann Leckie, author of the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, BSFA and Golden Tentacle Award-winning novel Ancillary Justice, the BSFA and Locus Award-winning sequel to that, Ancillary Sword, and the conclusion to the trilogy, Ancillary Mercy, which is available now! Leckie took to reddit to answer fan questions about gender, her writing process, and the vital importance of tea, and to explain exactly why she once typed out an entire C.J. Cherryh novel. You can read the AMA here, and we’ve rounded up highlights below!
First things first: what is the deal with the Radchaai and their tea?
I chose tea, actually, because I love tea, and also it’s a deliberate nod to C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books, in which tea is very important.
Is there any extra significance to the Radchaai’s ship names?
…I was thinking gods’ names ought to be involved, and thinking of Radchaai syncretism. Using an annexed culture’s gods for military ship names is (depending on your point of view, or your degree of assimilation) either horribly offensive, or an honor, one more sign that your people (and your gods) are entirely Radchaai.
Is there any way to get a print of that extraordinary cover art?
Prints of the John Harris work can be found here.
Now this wouldn’t be an AMA without some book questions, so first, which books influence Ann Leckie most as a writer?
In fiction, probably C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books, and everything by Andre Norton. There’s more, of course, but it would take me ages to list everything on my bookshelves or that I read as a child in the library. In non-fiction, I found John Gardner’s two writing books to be tremendously helpful. Writing books can be very individual–one might strike you as helpful that someone else found useless, or that you might not have appreciated at some other time in your life. I found Gardner at just the right time, and I re-read them both every year or so for several years. Those would be The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist.
And if she had to pick some favorite recent books…?
Oh, wow. It’s difficult to pick a favorite book. Hmm. At the moment, I’m reading a nonfiction book on the Italian Renaissance. I’ll probably pick up one of the books I get sent for blurbing next… But. Hmm. Probably the coolest things I read in the last year or two were The Martian (which I enjoyed quite a lot), and Self Reference Engine which actually I think is from 2013, but it’s super weird and cool. I feel like I’m forgetting one–that happens to me all the time, I list some things and then hours later I go “Wait, I should have mentioned X but it’s too late now!”
Last 5 years? Probably Embassytown or The City & The City.
All time? Too long a list! I couldn’t pick just one.
And finally, where would she recommend a fan of hers start if they wanted to get into Andre Norton and CJ Cherryh?
So, for Cherryh, I would say try Foreigner (and keep with it until Bren comes onstage and give him at least a couple of chapters. No, that name is not a coincidence. But if you don’t like Bren, you won’t enjoy Foreigner) You might also give Merchanter’s Luck a shot–it’s set in the Alliance-Union universe and is a fairly accessible way in. If you like ML then give Cyteen or Downbelow Station a try.
Norton–wow, Norton wrote so much. You might try The Zero Stone which is one of my personal faves, or Sargasso of Space. Or for fantasy, try Witch World. Though actually, my entrance into that particular fantasy universe was The Crystal Gryphon which remains a particular favorite of mine.
One of the most striking elements of the Ancillary series is the way Leckie plays with gender. Why was the question of gender interesting?
Honestly, I started out very naively. In so much SF either gender roles are the ones we’re used to in the here and now, only transported to the future, or else they’re supposedly different but characters still are slotting into various stereotypes. I just thought it would be cool to really, truly have a culture that really, truly didn’t care and what would that look like? I was very naive, as I said, and I ended up doing a lot of thinking about gender as a consequence, and a lot of listening to people talk about their experience of their gender, or gender in general. I wasn’t trying to make any sort of point, honestly, and I’m not sure whether it does or doesn’t make any difference in the real world. But it’s interesting to see how differently I (and readers) think of the characters if I assume particular things about their genders.
And how did it come about when she came to write the books?
I had wanted to write about a culture that didn’t care at all about gender. I tried several approaches, and finally settled on using default “she.” But also, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that we don’t gender people in the way we often say we do–we talk about gender (often, in the US) as though it’s entirely determined by your genitals, but it’s really quite rare for us to see the genitals of most people we meet! There are secondary characteristics, it’s true, but they aren’t the unambiguous signals we often assume. I know of clearly masculine cis men, for instance, who have more breast tissue than some clearly feminine cis women. It’s not the presence or absence of breasts that we’re responding to, it’s actually a combination of signals, things like hair style, clothing style, way of standing or moving (both of which can be and are learned), all sorts of things like that. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that those things would change from culture to culture–and be meaningless in a culture that genuinely didn’t care about gender at all.
Can she share a few thoughts on her writing process?
I tend to say I’m not an outliner, but I was talking to an outliner recently (Hi, Juliette Wade!) who said, “Well, what do you do?” and I explained that I generally have an idea where I’m starting, and some idea where I want to end up, and a few landmarks on the way, and the rest I figure out as I go. And she was like, “Yeah, right, so you outline.” And I went huh. I tend to edit some as I go–partly because one of the reasons I don’t outline much is that I don’t know what the next scene will be until I’ve actually written the previous scene. Something as tiny as a character picking up the wrong object or saying the wrong thing can throw things in the wrong direction. Often I begin a day by looking back over what I did before and fixing it up–I’ll have had thoughts about it while I was away doing other things, often, and seen that I was doing something wrong.
So I don’t really separate out drafting and editing, until I have a complete manuscript, and then I read it over and think about it and start making changes. And I don’t have a set number of drafts, really. I just work on it until it’s done. Yes, the next question is how do I know it’s done? And the answer is different these days. It used to be “when the thought of opening the file again makes me want to cry” but these days it’s “about a month past the deadline.” I tried off and on to write from about just after college on, but I really buckled down and got serious in 2002. I made my first short fiction sale in 2005, and my novel sold in 2012.
Parents: take whatever writing time you can. Even if it’s just little bits here and there. It’s not a race, there’s no penalty for going slow, and little bits add up over time. When my kids were small I wrote during naptimes. Take whatever time you get, and don’t be hard on yourself, don’t worry about all the advice about getting big wordcounts every day, or whatever. Do the best you can with what you have, and it’ll be all right.
She talked about how she got started as a writer, and the importance of National Novel Writing Month:
I actually wrote some stories for my friends in high school. Mostly pastiches and various comedic things, for their amusement. I stopped in college–I was sure all my ideas were stupid. After college I decided to try the writing thing again–I’d always thought it would be cool to be a writer, and actually my parents had encouraged me to write from a very young age. So what I did was, I got a stack of True Confessions (and True Romance and True Stories and True Love, they were all run by the same company. None of them exist anymore, but they paid three cents a word and took up a lot of space on the drugstore rack) and read them until my eyes bled. Then I wrote an imitation of what I’d just read, and sent it in.
It sold! Of course, since the thing about those magazines was that the stories were all supposed to be Real True Stories, anonymous so that you could be Entirely Honest about all the Scandalous Details (they were never terribly scandalous but the snippets on the cover always made them sound like they were) I didn’t get a byline. So it doesn’t really count. It wasn’t until maybe ten years later that I tried again–largely because I was home with small children, which takes a lot of time and energy but doesn’t give you a lot to think about. I needed to do something with my mind, even if it was only for a few minutes a day. I entered NaNoWriMo in 2002, with a few internet friends, and we exchanged chapters. I decided after that I should make an actual go of it. I joined Critters, but mostly I just showed my work to my friends.
Ann Leckie got to work with Octavia Butler at Clarion West! Just how awesome was that?
Octavia Butler was so freaking awesome. She said a number of things (Was I, she asked me, under the misapprehension that what I’d turned in for the workshop was actually a short story? She suspected I was more comfortable as a novelist and it was showing. That was actually really helpful–and accurate. I had no misapprehensions whatever, I just was trying really hard to learn to do short fiction.)
On a practical note, she recommended typing out passages of works we admired a lot–typing out openings, for instance. This was extremely helpful advice for me.
My process has kind of changed over the years, but I think in most ways it hasn’t really. The biggest change is having an actual deadline, which does kind of compress the work I was spreading over months before!
Is there a particular element that she likes in her own books?
I have to admit I’m kind of proud of the way I managed to handle the point of view of a character with thousands of bodies.
And finally, is “Character” the new “Action”?
Yeah, Action is very much Character. A truism in writing, really, but I think it applies to other things as well.
One of the things I did when I was trying to figure out how to write the Ancillary books was type out a novel I greatly admired. That is, I typed out the entirety of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner. I was trying to figure out why I loved that book so much. Or, I’d figured out that the key to its success with me was the main character, Bren, but I didn’t understand how she’d put him together or what about him made me respond the way I did. Typing the novel out was an interesting experience, but I discovered what about Bren that really appealed to me, and why the novel worked so well for me. Basically, if you don’t like Bren Cameron, you’re going to hate Foreigner so you might as well send it back to the library. But if you like him….yeah.
But with the exception of really cardboardy candy adventures–which, lets be honest, those can be awesome fun–action kind of forces character development. It’s just, I find that as a reader I like it best when that aspect is played up and really worked out, so when I sat down to write, that’s what I did. I do feel like it’s best when there’s a variety of things to read–like I said, I love a good cotton candy, melts in your mouth and forgotten by dinnertime explosion fest as much as the next girl. I actually think those are not easy to write well, and we need them. But the books that really stick with me, they tend to be a lot more character oriented, definitely.