Elizabeth Bear is a prolific author who has won the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the 2006 Locus award for Best first novel for Hammered, Scardown and Worldwired, the 2008 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short science fiction (Tideline), the 2009 Gaylactil Spectrum Award for best novel for the “Strattford Man”, the 2012 Audie Award for best original work for “Metatropolis:Cascadia”, and several Hugo awards: the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Tideline“, the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “Shoggoths in Bloom” and the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for SF Squeecast. She is one of only five writers who have gone on to win multiple Hugo Awards for fiction after winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
She was the guest of honor at the last Finncon, and finding a space in her busy schedule, she agreed to answer some questions.
Tanya Tynjälä for Amazing Story: You write fiction, non-fiction, reviews, etc. How do you consider yourself as a writer?
Elizabeth Bear: Just as a writer, it’s what it says in my card. I have written also scripts, poetry and of course science fiction and fantasy. I don’t see a big division in those thing, they all seem to me part of the same process. You need different skills maybe for fiction and non-fiction, for poetry and narrative. But they are still writing, they are still a form of storytelling, technologically mediated telepathy, is how I like to describe it. I think something, I converted into technology and somebody else takes that and turns it back into thoughts.
AS: You are talking about different strategies, what are they? How is writing a short story, a novel, poetry different?
EB: The strategy for poetry is very different, because it has no need to have a narrative, it can be strictly an attempt to catch a moment, an emotional image or a comparison between two things. That is a perfect valid thing to do with poetry. In prose, it seems to me, starting with flash fiction, that it is about a moment, a single thing, a single emotional state. In a short story can have one character arc, one plot arc, one thematic arc. There is not room for more, and all that needs to be technically allied to work, they need to move all from the same opening to the closing point. A novella or novelette has room for a couple of those and a novel has room for a lot of things, you can go explore, you can seek trails, and especially if you are working in a series or a trilogy, I mean an epic story line, you have even room for things that contradict each other, to show the story in different lights, you have room for two characters or different aspects, different represented sides. It doesn’t mean necessarily complexity, because short stories can be very complex, but it is the size of the tapestry you are working, the amount of different related things you are talking about. Of course, this is for me. I know other people think different about it.
AS: So in your opinion, what makes a good story?
EB: I am very picky as a reader because I am picky as a writer and I want to do everything well. I want a story to show me a character in a moment of stress and how that changes him or her. I want a story that creates an emotional reaction. I want the story to be interesting and with a thematic complexity, to be “about something” in a larger sense, to have something to say for itself.
AS: Earlier you were saying that your Promethean Age series are “classic” Urban Fantasy, as opposed to Urban Fantasy, the new trend now. What are the differences?
EB: I think the classic Urban Fantasy, the older Urban Fantasy, by Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, etc. was more literary in its concerns, was more interested in character states and emotional states and in exploring the world. The modern urban fantasy tends to be more plot and conflict. I actually like both. I am a fan of both forms that have a different feeling. There are so many different aspects in urban fantasy that it’s hard to say something definitive about it.
AS: As part of your activities you participate in workshops like the Clarion, WisCon Writer’s Respite, Odyssey and Viable Paradise and on the panel “On Writing” you said that you learn more from giving feedback than receiving it. Could you explain?
EB: I absolutely think so, you learn more from reading other stories and thinking what works and doesn’t work, than when people tell you what works or doesn’t works on your story. That is something that some people in writing groups really don’t internalized, some people don’t want to criticized others work but expect everybody to fix their stories and it doesn’t work like that. That is not how it functions, a critique group. So much of what I have learned about writing is reading other people stories.
AS: You are dating writer Scott Lynch. Is it difficult to have a relationship with another writer? How do you handle, for example, professional jealousy?
EB: I think sometimes I get a little jealous of the time he spends working, but that happens in any relationship. But I have to say that our relationship actually works really well, because both we are very supportive of each other careers. I am extremely proud of him and proud of his success and he is also very proud of my success. It is nice actually because we each have a sort of “second chance” when winning an award. Any relationship is going to have their little rough spots, but in general I think we get along pretty well.
AS: And are you planning any collaborations?
EB: We kind of started something but we are going very slowly with it. It is a short story. But there are no plans to merge our careers of any sort. I serve as a first reader for him sometimes, and he does it for me, which is nice, because he is a pretty smart editor in addition to being a good writer.
AS: I find your relationship very interesting, because it is not very common among writers. In the mainstream, most of the time, this kind of relationship ends quite badly because of envy, especially between successful writers.
EB: Yes, but the way the Science Fiction and Fantasy literature world works is different from Mainstream. Nobody comes to Science Fiction for the money or the fame; there is no “prestige” here. We all start, writers and editors, as fans. We get into writing and editing because we love it, because is fun, interesting, and make us think.
There is also an impulse we are very lucky to have, that I think originated with some science fiction North American writer during the 40’s and 50’s, it is that you don’t have to pay back or to pay forward, you pay on to somebody else. Somebody gives you a break, you give it to somebody else, and you help somebody. And there are the readers. With very few exceptions, science fiction and fantasy readers like to read and they are going to buy books because they like them. They are not going just to buy one book this year; they are going to buy 70. The only constraints on the reader’s consumption of books are time and money. They are going to discover another wonderful new writer and they are going to take the money out of their savings just to buy more books. I know this because I am a reader myself. Of course there is always some envy if, for example, I think an awarded book was not as good as mine, but in general, because we are writers and fans at the same time, we see things differently from the mainstream writers. I know a writer nominated for the Hugo this year, who told me she was going to vote for Ancillary Justice, because it was the best book and deserved to win. Of course It doesn’t happen all the time, there are some that just have the “win to win” attitude, but the fact that this writer was able to accept that book was better and deserved to win is amazing to me and makes me feel that I want to be in this family.
AS: And finally, what are you working on right now?
EB: Right now I am working on a novella that is due August 1st. A harvest themed novella and a world for an online game call Storium, which is an interactive game. The novelette I am working on is the third and final collaboration I am doing with Sarah Monette in the Companion to Wolves universe. Once that is delivered, which should be this autumn, then I have to start on the first book of the second Eternal Sky trilogy which doesn’t have a title yet.