I promised you, a week…

I promised you, a week ago, that I would tell you why science fiction for this new book, Demimonde. Apologies for the delay -- I blame the cold that knocked me out. But I'm back now, with only a slightly scratchy throat, so here it is at last. It would be easy to say I'm writing science fiction now for the fun of it. And that is, in large part, the answer. But it's a bigger, more serious answer than it sounds like.

I'm not really talking about just fun, but a deeper joy, an intense passion that has had me devouring speculative fiction since I was knee-high to a gnome. I'm not making a distinction here between science fiction and fantasy -- while there are some real differences, what I'd like to talk about here is common to both. Magic is magic, whether it shows up in elfin or alien form. The sense of wonder I get from a ship slipping through the dark vastness of space is awfully similar to the heart-in-throat gasp of a girl riding her first dragon. I heard a magazine editor say once that when she put a dragon on the cover of her magazine, newsstand sales jumped seventy percent. I'd be one of those readers, I admit. And what's strange to me isn't that I love the genre, that I've loved it since I was very small indeed, but that I abandoned it for so long.

When I started writing, I wrote erotica and mainstream lit. Oh, every once in a while I would try my hand at something that I could submit to MZB's Fantasy Magazine, but not often. After a few years of writing and publishing, I went off to do an MFA, where again, I wrote mainstream lit (with somewhat less sex in it than previously). There were external reasons for that -- while I had a wonderful advisor and terrific faculty, more than one professor told me straight out that they didn't read science fiction or fantasy, and they'd rather I didn't write it for the program. Not necessarily because they hated it and didn't want to read it, but because they didn't feel competent to critique it.

I did convince my advisor that critiquing genre fiction wasn't actually all that different from critiquing mainstream lit; if you're doing it right, you can have almost the same conversations about character and theme and structure and point of view. (Granted, setting is rather different!) I may have pressed some Le Guin on her too -- I can be shameless about that. And she agreed to let me try it, but in the end, I didn't. Because in between the first and second years of my program, I went to Clarion West, and Clarion killed my SF/F writing career.

It didn't mean to kill it! I went there, for that intensive six-week summer writing workshop, to be surrounded by other spec fic writers and editors and teachers. And it was great -- intoxicating, in fact. After an MFA program where I felt I had very little in common with the other students (mostly white, and mostly coming from very different personal and literary backgrounds), I was finally among my own kind, home at last. I expected that I would come out of there a speculative fiction writer, and that I'd then spend the second year of the MFA program arguing with my professors until they let me write what I wanted to write.

Instead, week four happened. In week four, I submitted the first chapters of a fantasy novel to the two Tor editors who were teaching us that week. And in conference at the end of the week, they told me that they'd read my fantasy chapters, and they'd read my three previous stories, which had barely qualified as genre pieces, and they thought that I had secret aspirations to a literary fiction career. They thought I should do that, and stop trying to write speculative fiction. I went back to my dorm room and bawled.

I was utterly crushed. I had entertained faint, squishy hopes that they would love the book, that they would buy it right out of the workshop (it had happened before!), and that that would launch a brilliant fantasy-writing career. Instead, the gates of the kingdom were being slammed shut behind me. I...was a mainstream writer. That was all I was good for.

I picked myself up, finished out the last two weeks, and went back to my MFA, where I proceeded to concentrate on mainstream lit. I invested, deeply, in trying to be a literary writer. When I applied to a Ph.D. program in creative writing, I asked one of the faculty to look over a story of mine, tell me if I had a shot getting in. She read it, and said it was very...oh, I can't remember the word, I think I've blocked it out. Polished, maybe. She told me not to apply, and implied that my writing might be good enough for magazines, but it wasn't good enough for anything serious. That pissed me off.

I applied. I was wait-listed -- but I got in. And then I proceeded to kick some ass. I worked as hard as I could on the stories I workshopped there, and at least a few of them were, I think, pretty damn good. Even literary. I revelled in the company of fellow-students who might not have been science fiction and fantasy geeks like me, but who were equally geeky about literature. Some of them were actually my kind of people -- in fact, although I didn't realize it at the time, I think most of them were. Maybe all. I had years of wonderful immersion in literature, literary theory, narrative theory -- I even studied some history. And at the end of it, I wrote Bodies in Motion which may have had disappointing sales according to the publisher, but which also had some pretty complimentary (and literary) reviews. That combination of poor sales and positive reviews might be the very definition of a literary success.

So why didn't I just stick with that success? In part because HarperCollins cancelled my next book with them, a literary novel. I was pretty crushed -- I'd invested a year in that book, along with a lot of hopes and dreams; I'd fallen a little in love with the characters, and I wanted to share them with the world. I didn't realize it at the time, but I think I went into a writerly funk, a depression. And while I started other literary books -- a nonfiction memoir, a war novel -- I couldn't seem to get properly excited about them. The spark, the joy, had gone.

What brought it back was speculative fiction. Oh, I published a few mainstream stories after that. But I also published "Talking to Elephants," a YA fantasy story, and "Jump Space," a poly space opera story. And I had such fun writing them. "Talking to Elephants" led to me spending much of last year writing a fantasy novel based on that story, and my agent is shopping it around now, and it is, I am assured by various early readers, a good book. I was writing a lot of it in a coffeeshop, and I would go in, and the women behind the counter would ask how the book was going, and I could feel myself just beaming as I told them "great, just great!" It wasn't all dancing pink unicorns, but in writing that book I found once again, after a long time away, a passionate love for story, for invention, for sheer, scintillating magic.

When I was setting out to write the next book, I asked my readers what they'd like to see. And they were pretty evenly divided between science fiction, mainstream, and erotica. But with each response, I heard a little voice in my head whispering science fiction. And I knew that was what I longed to write, that was the world I wanted to immerse myself in. And all the other little voices in my head saying that science fiction wasn't SERIOUS enough could just go to the seven hells, and take their snooty literary critic friends along with them.

I do still love mainstream lit too. I teach a lot of it in my post-colonialism class, books that I adore. But even brilliant books that seem mainstream on the surface, like E.M. Forster's A Passage to India or Keri Hulme's the bone people, often have a secret speculative lining to them. The world we live in is so strange, and often it seems that we writers can't stay within rational confines when we interpret, translate, celebrate its mysteries. Our world is like the Doctor's Tardis -- bigger on the inside than the outside.

People are like that too. And if literary fiction is meant to delve into the mysteries of the human heart, then I can't think of a better way to do it than with a strong dose of magic to guide you.

Also, I think writing Demimonde is going to be a lot of fun. But I said that already. :-)

2 thoughts on “I promised you, a week…”

  1. Mary Anne,
    Thanks for the brief bio/Apologia pro vita sua. It explains a life energy that most of us must envy. So onward and upward with your new project.

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