Interview with Award-Winning Author Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold

Today we are joined by legendary author Lois McMaster Bujold. Lois writes fantasy and science fiction that marches side by side with the greatest authors the genre has ever known. Her trophy case includes five Hugos, three Nebulas, three Locus, a Skylark, a Mythopoeic, and numerous other awards. Her list of nominations has grown so long that she once used it to escape out of a third story window while fleeing the rampages of a frothing wombat.

Her latest book, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, has been nominated for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. A win would represent her fifth in the category and sixth overall. Only one author has been awarded five best-novel Hugos. His name is Robert A. Heinlein. In 2013, Lois McMaster Bujold could make history by tying his record. When not battling mosquitoes around the lakes of Minnesota, Lois spends her time on Ganymede exchanging writing tips with Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke.

R.K. Troughton for Amazing Stories: Welcome to Amazing Stories, Lois. The Hugo Award was named after Amazing Stories founder, Hugo Gernsback. In the science fiction community, it is the equivalent of the Academy Award, Nobel Prize, and Cy Young. You have received twelve different Hugo nominations and have walked away with five, with one yet to be determined. Have you ever stepped back to consider your place in the history of science fiction? How does that make you feel?

LMB: To answer your last question first, rather surreal.

I spent what seemed like forever at the beginning of my career being “new writer Bujold”; the transition to historical artifact seems rather abrupt, as though I’d somehow missed the middle book of the trilogy. I suppose I was too busy at the time to notice. And then suddenly my first career award popped up (in 2007, from the Ohioana Library Association), which I think of, recursively, as “an award for winning awards”.

Thankfully, it is not my job to determine my place in genre history. Nevertheless, it was very gratifying, in 2008, to be invited to be the WorldCon Writer Guest-of-Honor, which is a kind of career award in itself.

I did at that time come up with a few retrospective remarks about the nature of the genre. (The whole Denvention 3 GoH speech is included in my 2013 nonfiction e-collection Sidelines: Talks and Essays.) But to pull out the pertinent bit, I don’t think of the science fiction genre as offering a single Platonic ideal toward which all writers and all stories should convergently aspire, but rather, as a tapestry of disparate threads that, when one steps back, may or may not make an emergent pattern. I’m happy to be one bright thread; I’d rather not be held responsible for the entire picture.

It is weird and rather gratifying, however, to occasionally run across younger writers, in internet interviews much like this one, naming my work as having influenced them. I grew up the last kid in my family by several years, which seems to have fostered in me the permanent illusion that I am always the youngest and most ignorant person in any room. At age 63, I finally seem to be getting over that.

Captain-Vorpatrils-Alliance by Lois McMaster BujoldASM: For those not familiar with your latest candidate, please tell us what we can find inside Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance.

LMB: Broadly, it’s a romantic comedy and caper novel in SF drag, which, while it has series roots, stands alone: everything you need for a read, complete in this kit. Also (as always with me) a character study—studies—but that part is best discovered for oneself.

Longtime sidekick Ivan Vorpatril, known to his overachieving relatives as “Ivan, you idiot,” (and whose tagline has always been, with some justification, “It’s not my fault!”), finally gets his (unwanted) place in the spotlight. Suckered by ImpSec spy and cousin Byerly Vorrutyer into protecting a beautiful Jacksonian refugee on the run from the forces that brought down her powerful family, Ivan finds himself, ultimately, in a much deeper hole than anyone had imagined. Watching him dig himself out provided me, at least, with a great deal of amusement; my readers as well, judging by the reviews.

I note that the book has had much the same reader response as its immediate predecessor CryoBurn, also a late-series book. Long-time series readers would insist one must read umpty-ump other books first; but brand-new readers reported they got along just fine. In this case, I would suggest that one go with the latter votes.

ASM: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is part of a much longer series, measuring over fourteen novels in length. For many authors, this would require new readers to start at book one and begin trudging through. One of the aspects I enjoy most in your books is that each story contains a beginning, a middle, and an end. If I go out and purchase book seven, I’m not getting just a middle; I’m getting the entire story. Please tell us about your approach to this series and what is required reading before we pick up this year’s Hugo nominee.

LMB: I drifted in to my Vorkosigan-universe series one book at a time, back in the 80s, without an over-arching plan of some plot to be finished in some set number of pre-contracted volumes. My first goal was simply to get to the end of my first novel. The series’ growth thereafter has been organic; I used to joke that I had no more idea of where central character Miles Vorkosigan’s life was going than he did. This gave me a great deal of elbow room for trying out different ideas within the series framework, exploring all kinds of plots and tones—I wanted to see how many genres I could fit in! There are, after all, no actual genre police out there to enforce the norms.

Nonetheless, I did have one early structural model—C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books, the adventures of a British naval officer in the Napoleonic wars. Each volume stood alone as a complete adventure, but, taken together, they ended up becoming a fascinating biography of the hero as he grew and changed over time, each volume serving two (or more) purposes at once. (It was also written out of internal-chronological order, by the way.) As a long-time series reader myself, I was very aware how difficult it could be to acquire series books in order—I grabbed the Hornblower books at random as I could get them, but still had very satisfactory reads.

The most important thing turns out to be what to leave out. Every book, even the first in a series or a stand-alone, has an implicit backstory that is not recounted in exhaustive detail, but merely alluded to as needed. (Well, I suppose some of James Michener’s bricks were an exception. He often started with the paleogeology.) The trick was simply to treat all the other volumes as I would the backstory for any new book. It turns out one can dispense with quite a lot—which has the added advantage of sustaining suspense and surprise regardless of what direction the reader passes through one’s fictional landscape. Tight point-of-view is also very handy, since whatever character the story is being told through may well not know all that history either, the way most of us know so very little about our parents.

I resisted numbering the books for years, not least because I might always drop in a prequel somewhere and upwhack the numbering system (which I actually did a couple of times). Certain recent automated bookselling bots insisted, however, so we reluctantly assigned numerals to all the volumes. Don’t take them too seriously. I think a better bet is my slightly more free-form guide, here:

Short version: while the entire series need not be read in order, there are embedded a few two- or three-book sub-arcs that repay doing so, such as Shards of Honor followed by Barrayar.

But in the meanwhile, unless one is wildly spoiler-phobic, no one should be required to read any other Vorkosigan volume before Ivan’s tale. The new readers’ experiences will be different from those of the old readers, certainly, but they won’t be wrong. And, when they circle back and pick up the rest, and then read Captain Vorpatrils’ Alliance again, it will seem like a whole new book with the same text; two reads for the price of one. A bargain, I say.

ASM: While many critically acclaimed authors stick to either science fiction or fantasy, you have crossed over into both. In fact, your fantasy novel Paladin of Souls won the Triple Crown by collecting the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. For those that have never read any of your fantasy books, give us a taste of what they will discover.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster BujoldLMB: Amazon’s and Nook’s lovely “Read Inside” features do a pretty good job of that. (Amazon will also download samples directly to one’s Kindle.) I recommend peeking at The Curse of Chalion as the starter for the Chalion series (the flavor of which might be summed up as, “court intrigue, death magic, and speculative theology”), The Sharing Knife, Volume 1: Beguilement for that romantic-fantasy series (which, contrary to my usual practice, is numbered, and for a reason—that tetralogy is indeed one continuous tale divided into four volumes), or (my very first try at historical fantasy back in 1992), the stand-alone The Spirit Ring.

I adore the fact that these features allow books to sell on content instead of just packaging. I am always thrown into a quandary when asked to describe my own work; I’d rather just point mutely. Which I now can do, yay!

That said, a lot of the writers I grew up reading wrote both fantasy and science fiction. I never considered it an either/or proposition.

ASM: Many of your books are woven with a healthy dose of romance. In fact, some of your books have even won romance awards. Please tell us about the importance of romance between your characters and its place in your fiction.

LMB: Well, the mating dance is a pretty basic human biological interest, and my audience is, as far as I know, human. I have not-quite-joked that all romance is a subset of science fiction, being tales of the promulgation of human evolution through sexual selection, and what could be more scientific than that?

It has been remarked that tragedies end in funerals, and comedies in weddings; comedy thus affirms life over death. And in general I prefer the comic to the tragic. I don’t need to turn to fiction for an overdose of the latter; the daily news supplies.

That said, I do think that if one is going to write a science fiction romance, the science and technology should make a difference to the growing relationship being examined, and that difference should be explored as part of the tale.

ASM: Looking back at your youth, when was the first moment you realized you had fallen in love with science fiction? What started your romance with the genre?

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor CameronLMB: I was in love with reading by third grade. (That was when I discovered that, instead of being limited to the age-selected books laid out on the table during library periods, I could take out any book.) My first love was horse stories—Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry, and so on. I read the SF on offer—I have discovered that more SF writers than me regard The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron as an Ur-book to their attachment to the genre. I also encountered the Heinlein juveniles there.

I started reading adult science fiction about age nine, with the magazines and paperbacks that my father, a professor of engineering, used to buy to read on the plane when he went on consulting trips. I cadged my first subscription to Analog Magazine at about age thirteen—starting in the early 1960s, during the reign of editor John W. Campbell, Jr.. (Dune was first serialized there.) Another writer I remember fondly from that early period was Eric Frank Russell; later, Poul Anderson, Anne McCaffrey, Randall Garrett, Zenna Henderson, Roger Zelazny, and Cordwainer Smith.

When Star Trek came along in 1966, I was already an SF fan of long standing. Looking at it today, folks don’t realize that it was the best-produced visual SF ever seen at the time since the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet. (The barrier-busting 2001: A Space Odyssey still lay several years in the future.)

ASM: From my corner of the galactic web, you seem like a born storyteller. I can picture you crawling out of the womb and immediately calling for pen and paper. Please describe the genesis of your writing career. What was the first thing you wrote, and did it win any awards?

LMB: Depends on where you want to count from. In third grade, my teacher Miss Shade handed out pictures and had everyone in the class write a story. I picked a picture of a man being washed down a raging torrent clutching a log with a cougar crouched on the other end. In my story, the cougar talked, and they were friends (there was a third ally, I dimly recall, a talking eagle); they teamed up to defeat a bad guy. Probably not much like the original tale, whatever it was, that this lovely lurid painting illustrated. My story ran three pages, neatly printed on that cheap school paper with the wood chips still in it. No awards, but I think I got a good grade.

In junior high school in the mid-60s, I began with a friend writing what would now be called fan fiction or, very quickly, Alternate Universe fan fiction. I continued to try to write up through college, but then stopped in my twenties, got married, worked in hospital patient care, and kept reading. I did not start again with the work that eventually was publishable till a decade later, when I’d hit my thirties.

My first novel, and the first published, was Shards of Honor in 1986. It was a final nominee for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel (which is given annually by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society), and came in second in that year’s Locus Poll for best first novel, so I had a taste of recognition from very early on. Best of all, it’s still in print (and, now, e-print, not to mention audiobook) to this day, which is the reward that most matters.

ASM: When your stories and characters permit you to come up for air, who/what do you read?

LMB: Oddly enough, not very much science fiction these days. Light mysteries and the wittier romantic comedies (but not romantic dramas/melodramas, which I find tedious.) Georgette Heyer, Jennifer Crusie, for historical and contemporary romance respectively, Dorothy Sayers for mystery. Terry Pratchett. Ben Aaronovitch is a more recent find.

Like most writers, I read tons of nonfiction somewhat at random (less random when doing specific research). Lots of pop sci, especially about evolution and biology. History ad lib. I’m starting to develop a record of my recent reading on Goodreads, as I feel somewhat obliged to give back to the online reviewing community that has so overloaded my to-be-read piles.

I have recently moved my blog over to Goodreads, as well.

ASM: Famously, John W. Campbell mentored and developed young writers into legends of the industry. Isaac Asimov even called him “the most powerful source in science fiction ever.” While you never worked with Campbell, you had the good fortune to work with one of the truly great (and perhaps underappreciated) editors, Jim Baen. We understand that editors frequently get too much credit or not enough credit. In a way, they are like football coaches guiding each player towards their maximum potential. Please tell us what it was like working with Jim and how he helped coach you from newbie to legend.

The Warriors Apprentice by Lois McMaster BujoldLMB: Baen Books and I started at about the same time in the early 80s. As an isolated wannabe—there was no internet with a billion articles about writing and publishing in those days!—I had only the vaguest idea what an editor did, still less a publisher, when Jim called me in October of 1985 and, on the basis of The Warrior’s Apprentice submission draft and some descriptions, made an offer on all the three books I had written during the prior three years. Those went through pretty lightly edited, and were brought out in swift succession in 1986, making me suddenly very visible. Jim had more to do with the genesis of my fourth novel Falling Free (1988), as it was the first I ever wrote under contract. We had several phone discussions about its possibilities (no e-mail back then, either), which ended up with its being not a book about displaced jump-pilot Arde Mayhew, but rather, about the genesis of the bioengineered race of the quaddies. This won my first Nebula, so we did something right.

Jim guided me through my growing understanding of how publishing really worked through a number of conversations, on the phone or at our very occasional convention meetings—my first ideas about the business were pretty imaginative and paranoid. Jim had a lot of ideas about promoting writers that I think would have been wrong turns for me, had I taken them—collaboration with a better-selling writer, world-sharing, and so on—but he certainly proved later that they could work with the right combination of writers and projects. He always made it very clear that the last word in any editorial discussion, and we did have a few, was mine.

Geographic distance—I was in the Midwest, he was first in New York and then in North Carolina—and the busyness of our respective lives meant that we didn’t become close personal friends, but he always treated me and my work with respect, and supported my series through its lean times, too.

ASM: Your writing reminds me of a great painting. Every word represents a precise brushstroke placed with the foreknowledge of how it contributes to the whole. Remove one word, and it is diminished. Add a single line, and it would seem unbalanced. Please explain how your style developed and how you arrive at this elusive balance.

LMB: I try to write clearly, an aim improved over the years by my growing grip on spelling and grammar. Beyond such basics, almost everything about my so-called “style” I consider a subset of characterization: each point-of-view character should, ideally, have his or her (or, being SF, its) own voice and lexicon and world-view, embodied in every sentence filtered through them. (Well, some sentences are necessarily more utilitarian.)

Paragraphs have their own internal structure and rhythm, like little prose poems, flowing out of what went before and pointing to what’s next. Sentence length gets varied for cadence and effect. Paragraphs themselves range as needed from long discursions to a single, sharp word; with beginnings, middles, and ends that should arrive somewhere worth the trip. Same goes for scenes, chaining up.

Most of this sort of thinking belongs in the revision stage rather than the tap-dancing-centipede writing stage, though I do edit some as I go. (I seem to spend a great deal of time winkling out word repetitions, especially now as I’m writing directly on the computer instead of going through a handwritten first draft.) Could also stand to kill more semicolons, I suppose.

ASM: Some authors create detailed outlines that map out every keystroke from beginning to end. Others simply grasp onto a plot strand or character sketch and are pulled into the story. What does your creation process look like?

LMB: It’s somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. I don’t make up my whole novel in detail on Day One; my head would explode. I capture a certain amount of pre-writing in messy notes and outlines, mainly as a memory aid, and work out a lot of my structural issues at that stage. At some point these notes reach a critical mass, and I can see how the story starts, outlining up to the first “event horizon”. I can usually write that far without knowing exactly what comes next, and in the process of getting there, the new ideas have time (and stimulus) to cook. “Just-in-time plotting” as it were.

My most fundamental work-unit is the scene, which I pull out of my chapter outline, re-outline and generally pummel a bit, and then capture on the page/screen in the first typed draft. This makes room in my head for the next scene, progressing one after another, like beads on a string. I do not, usually, write scenes out of order.

ASM: How has science fiction and publishing changed since you sold your first story?

Cyberbooks by Ben BovaLMB: Re: publishing, the two big shifts that I have witnessed since I came along as a new pro in the mid-80s have been the magazine distribution implosion of the mid-90s, which constricted the midlist paperback market, and the (long-trumpeted) current rise of e-books, which is blowing the mass-market paperback industry out of the water altogether. I and many other writers are swimming madly through this change right now. Back-when (1990, I see on, heh, Amazon), Ben Bova wrote a near-future SF novel titled Cyberbooks, in which he got one thing very right—that the shift would not be driven by the publishing industry itself. I shall have to reread that book sometime soon and see what else holds up.

Re: SF itself… I would like to say, the excessive amount of dystopian fiction, but then I think back on all those nuclear Armageddon tales I read back in the 60s. So, rather, it’s the absence of much except the dystopian flavor of fiction that I may be perceiving. We could use more variety of vision, here.

And, God knows, some comedy. I try to do what I can.

ASM: Is there anything you can share with your fans regarding your current projects? What can we look forward to?

LMB: I’m currently on something of a writing hiatus. So I’m making no promises at this time. The most recent book-like thing was Sidelines, mentioned above.

ASM: Thank you for joining us today. As always, we will patiently wait for your next masterpiece to make its way onto our bookshelves. Good luck with this year’s Hugo voting. I’m crossing my fingers and toes that this will be the year you tie the record. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories?

LMB: Thank you for the kind thoughts! My publishing and writing news, I pretty much post on my Goodreads blog, so check back there.

Related articles


  1. Terrific interview R.K. I’ve been reviewing her work recently, so this has been timely for me.

Leave a Reply

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