Interview with Award-Winning Author C. J. Cherryh

Interview with C. J. Cherryh about her writing, universes, and inspiration.

C. J. Cherryh
C.  J. Cherryh

Today we are joined by award-winning author C. J. Cherryh. CJ writes fantasy and science fiction works that have entertained and inspired readers for five decades. Her stories pull the reader in with a passion and force that refuse to let go until the final page is turned. The amazing universes she has created leave the reader longing for more, desiring to return once again to their rich expanses.

CJ’s tales are so inspiring that she has her very own asteroid named after her, 77185 Cherryh—look for it in a sky near you. Her trophy case gives evidence of her wonderful ability by proudly displaying many awards, including three Hugos, a Locus, a Skylark, and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. When not teaching her cats to read Latin, CJ spends her time practicing her fencing on ice skates.

R.K. Troughton for Amazing Stories: Welcome to Amazing Stories, CJ. Don Wells and Alex Cruz discovered a main belt asteroid in 2001 and named it after you. They said you challenged them to be worthy of the stars. Some have described the relationship between science fiction and science as symbiotic. Science inspires fiction which inspires science. How do you view this relationship between science fiction and science?

C. J. CHERRYH: The job of science fiction, besides that of telling a good story, is to enable people who are scientists to think about side effects, future effects, and people effects; and to enable people who aren’t scientists to understand technology and new discoveries in the same terms. One of the side effects is freeing people and literature from the history that did happen and teaching them to think what-if and why-not. I absolutely love my asteroid and hope it stays well-behaved!

Gate of Ivrel by CJ CherryhASM: Gate of Ivrel began your Morgaine series in 1976. On the strength of this series, you were selected for membership in the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America alongside such names as Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton, and Jack Vance. You have stated that Gate of Ivrel remains close to your heart. What makes the novel so dear to your heart, and what about it appealed so strongly to some of the greatest names in fantasy?

CJC: It was the first time a book really found an ending and really worked, because I had made contact with Don Wollheim at DAW, found him interested, and was able to write for a specific editor whose body of work and type of story I knew. It was a good match. It was a set of characters I’d invented when I was, oh, about thirteen. So it was an old favorite of my untold stories, and ended up being the first in print.

ASM: Your Alliance-Union universe has stretched across an entire library shelf, captivating the imagination of so many. For those that are not familiar with your Alliance-Union, please describe to us the universe and what we can find there.

CJC: Alliance-Union is a future history for which I literally made, on sheets of glass and finally on computer, a real map of the real stars surrounding our solar system, places like Alpha and Beta Cent, Ep Eri, Tau Ceti, etc, and figured how we could use certain real places as a set of stepping stones to the stars. I worked out how—and humanly why—you could have an interstellar civilization with nine ships; and where that would lead. It led, in the stories, to people who wanted to be free of Earth’s influence, those that wanted to preserve it, and those who wanted to trade between them and belong to neither. It led to the evolution of a new kind of mindset, and the colonization of more places, and ultimately to contact with more than one other intelligence.

Downbelow Station by C. J. CherryhASM: Included in your Alliance-Union: Company Wars series is the amazing novel Downbelow Station, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. For those that have not read the novel, please tell us something about it.

CJC: Downbelow Station is set at the time when the Beyond, those places trying to break free of Earth’s control, and the Alliance, are at war, and the Alliance, trying to serve Earth, is itself getting weary of orders coming from a planet that has no grasp of the universe, from powers that have no grasp of the kind of fight it is—that defines itself in terms of boundaries and borders which mean absolutely nothing in a 3-d universe, and which does not even seem to understand what a meaningful outcome of the conflict would look like. One of the people in the story is the young stationmaster of a station orbiting a rich undeveloped world, and another is Signy Mallory, one of the surviving Earth Fleet captains, who has fought in this war all her life, who has a name as both a hero and a war criminal, and who strongly questions where and why the orders from on high are leading.

ASM: World building is discussed and debated at conventions, on blogs, and in books. Many point towards your works as examples of masterful world building. How did you go about constructing the Alliance-Union universe, and what aspects of it still remain hidden in your mind that have not yet found a published page?

CJC: Along with the star map—I am delighted to find galactic mapping has become a strong focus of modern astronomy: if I could have found such maps at the time, I would have turned handsprings—I have a five thousand year future history in a notebook that shows me the parallel between certain stories, when and where they’re taking place. And that sometimes suggests what might be going on in a third place. I know events in that timeline that rather cry out for a story.

L to R: Jean Johnson, Elizabeth Moon, Martha Wells, Elizabeth Bear

ASM: At WorldCon last summer, I attended a panel discussion on writing combat. The panelists were Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Bear, Martha Wells, Jean Johnson, and Lois McMaster Bujold. When the discussion turned to space combat, the entire panel listed your writing as the benchmark. Please tell us how you masterfully construct such memorable combat scenes.

CJC: I don’t try to reconstruct sea battles. I imagine a combination of radar and artificial predictive intelligence and an actively maintained 3-d computer map as something called ‘longscan—I imagine ships that could get from here to Mars in minutes engaged in 3-d conflict—and inside those ships, officers making decisions backed by a team of multiple communications people, multiple longscan operators, with intermediate officers computer-aided in sifting what gets to the chief officers in a pace of information and happening at speeds too great for the human mind to handle. I envision weapons that don’t need explosives. Accelerate a piece of rock to an appreciable fraction of lightspeed and let fly. There are what are called ‘inerts’, which are pieces of metal like a telephone pole launched at a velocity that could create Arizona’s meteor crater if a planet happened to get hit. It’s a combination of technology we don’t have yet, with people-stories that we do see happen in war.

ASM: Of all the space combat scenes you’ve written, which of your novels has your favorite?

CJC: Probably my favorite is the pitch battle between the surviving Fleet and the Union in Downbelow Station.

Peacemaker by CJ CherryhASM: Your latest novel Peacemaker will arrive on the shelves in April 2014. Please tell us what we can expect to find beneath its cover.

CJC: Peacemaker is one of a series of books that starts with Foreigner. Every three books tells a complete story. It starts with a ship that has suffered an interstellar accident and manages to find a habitable planet—old scenario. The planet is, however, not only habitable, but inhabited, and landing on it goes fine until it goes awry. The two cultures clash. That’s pretty well chapter one. Now skip two centuries. A young diplomat and translator finds somebody prowling outside his ground-level apartment door at night, and he suddenly finds the native ruler’s high-level bodyguard engaged in a gun battle right through his bedroom. He’s shaken. He’s more shaken as the chief bodyguard, after saving his life, trades guns with him and insists he never fired a shot.

The young diplomat, Bren Cameron, is the only human allowed to be on the mainland. His job is basically adding words to the accepted dictionary and trying to prevent another war breaking out. The natives’ mindset and social structure are not only foreign to humankind, they operate at a strangely-pitched angle to human instincts of community and friendship.

But he has just met the two people to whom he will become deeply and emotionally attached, in a culture which has no word for ‘friend’ or ‘love’ and yet—does have words that describe an instinct humans don’t share. It’s something he can almost reach—and yet—can’t, and not just because there’s no word for it. It’s a reciprocal situation.

And the native ruler has decided Bren could be very useful…if Bren can meet his grandmother and live.

ASM: You discovered the desire to write when you were still very young. What was the first thing you wrote, and do you still have a copy?

CJC: I do, but it’s in pencil and hand-illustrated.

flash-gordonASM: Many of us can point to a single book, movie, or television show that first hooked us on imaginative fiction. What hooked you on the genre?

CJC: The original Flash Gordon serial. When that went off the air, after about 5 complete runs, I had to write my own episodes—but I was so afraid of the plagiarism police (thank my 5th grade teacher) that I changed every fact and character to something opposite. And ended up with an original.

ASM: You have been publishing now for five decades. How have the science fiction and publishing industries changed during that time?

CJC: Total sea-change. I now have to run an e-publishing company (with two other writers) to handle our backlist, because physical book sellers aren’t interested in maintaining it in inventory. The distribution system priced itself out of the market and the Thor Tool Decision (taxing items in warehouses) made warehousing sanely sized print runs impossible. What’s printed has to sell off the shelf in days and then be reprinted. It’s insane.

ASM: What authors or editors have inspired you the most?

CJC: Publius Vergilius Maro, Julius Caesar, Aristotle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jack Williamson.

ColdFusion by Jane Fancher

ASM: When you find time between the heavy lifting of building worlds, what do you like to read?

CJC: I read science, history, and the other two writers I work with.

ASM: Along with Lynn Abbey and Jane Fancher, you have created Closed Circle Publications. Please tell us about this venture.

CJC: I’ve answered the Closed Circle question above. We’re all in the same boat: backlist woes, and the insistence that every book be a gimmicky quick seller that can be described in one line, or be from a writer with an established following. A new writer coming out these days is in a terrible spot if they write complex books. So Lynn Abbey and I are the people with back list, and Jane Fancher is our New Writer, who’s building a backlist.

ASM: Early in your career you had a close relationship with Donald and Elsie Wollheim. Robert Silverberg once called Donald one of the most significant figures in science fiction publishing. How do you view Donald and his place in the history of science fiction?

Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

CJC: When I was looking for an editor I wanted to aim my writing toward, I lined up my very extensive and sf-heavy library and asked myself which editor had bought that book. The answer to most was Don Wollheim. When we worked together, he never mandated a correction: he’d just say—this scene doesn’t work for me. I’d look at the scene, usually decide the problem was in set-up for that scene, correct something that came before it, and he’d be happy. He knew how to work with writers. And he didn’t lean over your shoulder and tell you what to type.

ASM: Over your career you have provided your fans with a vast library of wonderful material. What are you working on now?

CJC: I’m working on another in the Foreigner series, and thinking about two sf books, one of which might follow Regenesis, and the other of which is still deep in the well of thought. It might take place in this solar system.

ASM: Thank you for joining us today. We always trust that you will deliver masterfully constructed and entertaining stories. We appreciate your continued passion to fill our minds with these fantastic tales.

Related articles

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.