Letters from Upstate New York:
A Correspondence with Pamela Sargent
conducted by Jill Engel
Pamela Sargent has been one of my favorite authors for many years. I first became acquainted with her writing when I was researching a short article on feminist science fiction. Impressed by her novel The Shore of Women, I went on to read the majority of her work. (I enjoyed her novels Venus of Dreams and Venus of Shadows so much that I completed both of them (over 1,000 pages) in a 3 day marathon reading session!)
From that research, I wrote to Ms. Sargent and thus began a correspondence with her (through the U. S. Mail, of all things). I was so impressed that such an excellent writer would have time to return letters from someone who was, in reality, just a fan.
At the time, I was writing for a (very) small desktop published magazine, NOVA Express. Ultimately, in about 1990, the idea occurred to me to conduct an interview and publish it in NOVA Express, to which Pam agreed. Over the next several months, we wrote back and forth and created thisiInterview. It was published in the Winter 1991 issue of NOVA Express, in time for WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin, at which Pam was a Guest of Honor. I got to meet her at WisCon and we had a great time hanging out with her and George Zebrowski.
We also compiled a bibliography which is current to about 1991 (we plan to update soon). Two items not included are her latest books, the new Women of Wonder compilations (two volumes, The Classic Years and The Contemporary Years). These are outstanding collections of short stories which that have received excellent reviews. Be sure to check them out. [Update--I included some information on these books in the bibliography.]
Finally, a few facts: Pamela Sargent was born March 20, 1948 in Ithaca, New York. She attended the State University of New York at Binghamton, attaining a Masters Degree in Philosophy. She currently lives in Binghamton, New York. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Jill Engel: George Clayton Johnson has a theory that many people get into writing when someone they know gets published for the first time. You get pissed off and, although you're really happy for them, you think to yourself, "Dammit, I could do as well as that." Was this the inspiration to write your first story, "Landed Minority?"
Pamela Sargent: I don't think this really inspired me to write it, but it probably did inspire me to submit the story to an editor. I'd been writing for a while, without submitting anything, but in the meantime, my college classmates George Zebrowski and Jack Dann had actually managed to sell some of their work. I'll confess that I started writing "Landed Minority" partly to see if I could do this kind of story, but might not ever have submitted it if George hadn't found it in my wastebasket and encouraged me to send it out.
It probably does help, in the beginning, to have a friend sell a story. Unless you know someone who's actually done it, the business of writing doesn't seem quite real. Even knowing some writers-and I'd met a couple who were friends of my father-doesn't always help, because they've already left the early stages behind. Someone who's at your stage, who makes the leap into print, makes the process seem possible.
Engel: How did you meet George Zebrowski and Jack Dann?
Sargent: I met George during our first semester in college [at the State University of New York at Binghamton]-I was going out with his roommate at the time. On our first date, George took me to see The Seventh Seal, which probably sounds like a scene out of a Woody Allen movie. This gloomy Ingmar Bergman film will forever be "our picture." We also went to see Casablanca not long after that, so I can say I'm still with the guy with whom I first saw Casablanca. Not many people can say that! George was determined to become a writer even then, and I often think it might have taken me a lot longer to get serious about writing without his example.
I met Jack in an astronomy course about three years later-he sat a couple of rows in front of me at the lectures. A few months later, he started going out with my roommate, Josie-in fact, the first time he came over to our apartment to take her out, George was there, and the two of them ended up talking about science fiction and writing for a couple of hours. Eventually, Josie and I got another apartment, and Jack moved in with her, so I can honestly say I was living with Jack before I lived with George. This was about the time I wrote my first science fiction story. I was finishing a paper on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics ; in a fit of exasperation, I set that aside and wrote "Landed Minority," which Ed Ferman bought not long afterward.
Engel: You had trouble with an editor on one of your earlier stories, I think-the story was changed significantly without your knowledge?
Sargent: That was "If Ever I Should Leave You," which I sold to If. I glanced at the story after it was published, and it was horrifying-all these dumb lines I hadn't written. The story was told in the first person by a nameless protagonist, but apparently some dufus at If-not the editor, as far as I could tell-decided my narrator should have a name. The name he decided on was Nanette. And the other changes were worse-clumsy bits of exposition that were wrong, details that made no sense. I spent months fighting with them about it, and one of the publisher's potentates even had the gall to make veiled threats about suing me if I didn't shut up about my grievances.
Eventually, I did get a settlement of sorts. During this dispute, Jim Baen took over as editor of If, and he agreed to publish a letter of mine protesting the changes, along with a comment of his own saying he agreed with me. The original text of the story was restored when it was published in my first short story collection, Starshadows.
Engel: How did that change your attitude toward the profession of writing?
Sargent: I started getting a lot more involved in looking after my work. Before then, I didn't think much about what went on after the story was written and sold.
Engel: Were you born and raised in New York state?
Sargent: I was conceived in California, but my parents had moved to Ithaca, New York, when I was born-my father decided to go back to college on the G.I. Bill at Cornell. Except for some time in the Midwest-Indiana and Chicago-I pretty much grew up in this state. New York has a bad rep in some circles, but the gorges around Ithaca and the Adirondack pine forests would rival almost any geographical spots for beauty. I always try to get up to the Adirondacks during the summer, to breathe the mountain air and get away from things like typewriters, computers, and telephones.
Engel: What did your father do? Your mother?
Sargent: I guess you could say that they tried a lot of different things. My father, at one time or another, was a law student, a worker in a presidential campaign (Wendell Wilkie's, a total exercise in futility), a Marine Corps officer (a heart attack in his twenties and injuries in combat put an end to that as a possible career), a professional singer, a movie extra, an insurance salesman, a director of admissions at one college, a professor of education at another, and a county legislator during the last twelve years or so of his life, with a reputation for being a maverick. My mother was an amateur pianist, a high school chemistry teacher, and later worked for the New York State education department-the branch she worked for was basically in charge of allocating funds to innovative projects in schools. At the moment, she's on the board of an adoption agency and is a pianist in a chamber orchestra.
My father had wanted to be a singer, even had a contract with NBC radio, and gave that up when his doctor told him the stress on his heart might kill him. My mother had thought of being a reporter, but decided that wasn't practical. My father hinted a couple of times that maybe he should have gone ahead and done what he wanted to do, even if that would have cut his life short, and I suppose that had an unconscious effect on me.
They were complete opposites in temperament. My father was something of a manic-depressive, either the life of the party or brooding. He was the kind of guy who could make friends of strangers in a minute-we usually had a slew of people from various walks of life around the house. My mother largely kept her feelings to herself; I've seen her cry a total of two times in my life. It made for an interesting marriage, if not exactly a peaceful one.
They had their share of bad luck, when my father's health problems caught up with him and he was unable to work. I was the oldest, so I looked after my younger brothers and sister. I became a buffer between them and my parents' problems, and that caught up with me later.
Engel: Were they supportive and/or influential of your career as a writer?
Sargent: At first, they really discouraged it. Maybe that shouldn't have surprised me, but it got to the point where we were barely on speaking terms for a while. Things changed after I'd published a few books, because by then they both realized I was serious.
What I didn't know, and didn't find out until a couple of years before my father's death, was that he had tried to write a novel as a young man and then thrown the manuscript away. He'd suffered over that book, and I think he was trying to save me the same kind of grief. My parents were sort of mystified by science fiction-I'd get asked when I was going to write a "real" book. That changed when my father started reading some Bradbury and Vonnegut, and realized even science fiction had some "real" writers. My father and my mother became much more supportive of my work in recent years.
We always had a lot of books in the house, and when money was tight, there were always paperbacks of the classics and books borrowed from libraries. That certainly must have had its effect on me.
Engel: Have you always planned to be a writer or did you have other career goals as a child? Teenager? College student?
Sargent: Career goals as a child? Well, I fantasized a lot, as many kids do. I remember thinking that it might be fun to run a saloon like Miss Kitty's Long Branch Saloon on Gunsmoke .
The earliest serious ambition I had was to be an actress, largely because the only other kinds of jobs apparently open to women at the time-namely, being a secretary, nurse, teacher, or hair stylist-all required you to be reasonably respectable and work long hours for not much pay. It made more sense, at least to me, to dream of something that might provide money, fame, and a chance for lurid love affairs. But I also liked acting because, paradoxically, I had a speech defect-I stammered. My teachers practically had to twist my arm to get me to say anything in class because of my fear that I'd start stammering, but if I was on a stage, playing a role and reciting someone else's lines, I never stammered. Apparently this isn't unusual for people with speech problems. Some of my earliest writing was plays, which my classmates and I would perform. My sixth-grade teacher thought enough of two of them to let us put them on as full-scale productions for the school-we made our own costumes and assembled our props, and I was appointed director. Some parents, as I recall, were a little disturbed by my choice of subject matter-the plays were based on what we'd been studying in our history units, so one was about a slave in classical Athens and another concerned a noble lady who was contemplating a love affair with a knight. That play was supposed to be about life in a medieval monastery, but the business with the knight and the lady was a sub-plot.
When I was older, I took art courses and thought of being a fashion designer, but during all of this, I was writing and sending stories to magazines, which may prove that, deep down, that was where I was headed, even if I wasn't ready to acknowledge it to myself. I began a long novel about Egypt during the time of Ikhnaton and wrote lots of slice-of life stories, but knew nothing about how to present them properly to editors. Somebody at The New Yorker finally took pity on me and wrote back, "You're supposed to type the manuscripts," which was a revelation-I'd been writing them out very neatly in longhand on lined paper. Most of them were never sent anywhere-I threw them away when I finished them.
Engel: Did you have anyone who inspired you as a child, writer or otherwise?
Sargent: My grandmother did, I think-my father's mother. One of my brothers and I lived with her for a while as kids- she'd moved in with one of her sisters when their marriages fell apart, and another of her sisters lived down the street, so it was a very female-dominated environment. She'd been kind of rebellious as an adolescent herself, and managed to get herself expelled from a convent where she was a student. Apparently the nuns considered her "wild," even though she didn't do much more than sneak out after hours to meet guys.
What she demonstrated was that it's never too late to make something of your life, to put it together even after serious problems, and she had her share of those. She was sympathetic and supportive when I was having my troubles-she knew what it was like. She also owned a fair number of books, most of which I read, including several Mika Waltari historical novels.
Engel: Did you work any different jobs before you became a full-time writer?
Sargent: Sure-most of them were fairly boring, dead-end kinds of things. The most tedious was an assembly-line job as a solderer-I soldered wires together on coils used in electronic components. Whenever the company had a rush order on something, they'd have us work overtime and tell us on Friday that we'd have to come in on Saturday if we wanted to keep our jobs, so I could never make any plans for the weekend. The best was being an office worker and receptionist for a paper company-I had plenty of supplies for my writing, and wrote my first novel in the evenings after work-it was never published, but I learned what not to write while doing it. I've been a salesclerk and put in long hours behind cash registers. When I was young and skinny, I did some runway modeling. This is the kind of work you think is glamorous when you're a teenager, before you find out it's about as exciting as being a coat hanger. At the places I worked, we often had to circulate among the customers afterward, so they could get a better look at the clothes, which meant smiling impassively at people who wanted to pull at the fabrics or guys trying to come on to you. I could never eat a decent meal, either-a few extra pounds could lose a job.
My contention is that, in spite of the disadvantages, a writer's better off with certain kinds of work if she needs a day job-namely, the kind of work that doesn't demand the kind of creativity and concentration writing does. For one thing, it makes you want to write more so you can ditch the job-the last thing you need is the kind of work you have to take home with you. I can understand why many writers prefer teaching, but being a good teacher is so demanding that I'd think it would drain most of the mental energy you need for writing. That's true of a lot of professions-when I was in grad school and teaching philosophy, I started feeling that eventually I was going to have to choose between that and my writing, that trying to do both might mean giving short shrift to each. So maybe I should be grateful that a lack of positions for philosophers in the academic world made the choice for me. I want to tell writers who need jobs to sustain their writing: "Drive a cab! Tend bar! Work in a mall!" I can only admire those writers who manage to do well at a second demanding profession, because I don't know how they do it.
Engel: How important is contact with other writers for your own writing?
Sargent: Probably not as important as it is for some writers. I was reading an obituary of Walker Percy the other day, which talked about how he'd chosen to live in a small Louisiana town and keep apart from literary movements and such. He'd been asked if this might not make a writer's work eccentric, and his response was that it might, but it could also produce The Sound and the Fury. Not that I'd compare myself to Faulkner, but I think some isolation can help a writer find his own voice.
Being around other writers can keep you from feeling quite so alone, but I'm not sure how much good frequent contact does. I'm always amazed when I open a novel and see lengthy acknowledgements-not the ones involving experts or research, but those that mention a host of writers who read the manuscript or went over it in workshops. I keep wondering if the writer was uncertain about her purpose, or didn't know what she wanted to say. I wonder if all those other voices might not have muted some of the book's individuality. A good friend of mine who's an artist told me once that what you really need is just one other knowledgeable and sensitive person-a colleague, a critic, or an editor-who understands what you're about and whose judgment you trust implicitly, that anything else is just a distraction. Seems to me that, if you're often around other writers, you'll naturally worry about how they regard your work, and run the risk of producing a kind of consensus fiction in which you try, maybe unconsciously, to meet their criteria for what constitutes a good novel or story. If you're part of a so-called movement, the problem's compounded. It's probably comforting to have a solid group of like-minded colleagues who'll boost your work, who agree with you about what good writing is, and it may help a career, but I don't know how much good it does the actual writing. Maybe the writer should be writing something else.
One of the nice things about the science fiction community is that there is a sense of community, a lot of writers who are generous to colleagues and beginning writers. One of the bad things is a distrust of outsiders, people who aren't part of the group. Too much identification with any group is death to creativity and originality.
Engel: Who do you think SF literary "movements" appeal to? Insecure readers?
Sargent: Possibly. Movements certainly seem to appeal to editors, since they make it easier to slap some sort of tag on a book. It's too bad-some like-minded writers, influenced and encouraged by one another, go about their business, then find, wittingly or unwittingly, that they've created another category. Then the pressure's on to create more work that resembles what's already been done-striking out in a different direction at first becomes another set of limitations later on.
Engel: What do you think of the latest shared worlds books-i.e., the Arthur Clarke Venus Prime and Asimov Robot City "novels?"
Sargent: Not much. Maybe I shouldn't say that, since I haven't read them and, to be honest, have no desire to read them. I can understand why a writer would sell his name when a publisher waves a check in his face, and why other writers in need of money write such books. Some of the writers hired to do them are probably conscientious about doing them as well as possible, but that's part of the problem. All that time and craftsmanship could be better spent on their own work, and the best writers are the ones hurt the most, because they lose time and energy they could spend on their own visions.
The only reason most of these books exist is to take up space in the racks and bring more money into the coffers of publishers. They aren't true collaborations, tributes to a writer by other writers, or someone taking another writer's themes or backgrounds and making them his own, doing something original with them; I don't object to that. But it seems to me that about all a writer has to offer is her own personal vision, and that's what's lost in franchise fiction. It uses one writer's name to sell the work of another, and loses the uniqueness of both.
Engel: Several of your essays have mentioned key books that greatly influenced your life and your writing, including Man of Many Minds by E. Everett Evans and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. How did these and other books influence your transition into a writer?
Sargent: Man of Many Minds did mostly because it was the first science fiction book I'd ever read-it was a revelation to read about a guy who could read minds, travel to other planets, and so forth. The Stars My Destination did because it was literally an emotional lifeline for me when I read it. I was fourteen, and I'd been committed to a horrendous institution with a lot of other fucked-up adolescents-to this day, I can't watch movies about reform schools, nuthouses, or prisons. I really thought my life was over, couldn't see how I'd ever lead anything remotely resembling a normal life. Our favorite recreation in the place was saving up our tranquilizers on the sly and then getting completely faced in secret with alcohol someone managed to smuggle in. I read The Stars My Destination in a very unsophisticated way-I identified with Gully Foyle, imagined being able to teleport, as he did, out of the hellhole I was in. In a weird way, the book gave me some sense of a possible future, because I'd try to imagine myself leaping past that experience and looking back from a time when I'd finally escaped it.
Engel: How have these experiences as a teenager influenced your young adult books? Your adult novels?
Sargent: I don't think it's an accident that a lot of my younger characters are very distrustful of adult authority and accepted wisdom, and that they learn to rely on themselves early, or that they often keep an emotional distance from others. The people they might normally count on, those who might be expected to care most about them, often betray them, even with the best of motives.
Engel: Do you hope to reach teens in similar conditions as you endured and overcame?
Sargent: I hope my books do that. Some of the letters I get from readers show that at least a few of them have reached messed-up kids. Whether I actually overcame my experiences is an open question-it's only been in recent years that I could confront them, or talk about them.
But you asked before how other books affected me. Gore Vidal once wrote that, whatever most writers say, the books that influence them most are those read in childhood-before the age of twelve, say-presumably because childhood experiences are the most formative. Assuming he's right, the most influential books for me must be Bambi, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, Grimm's fairy tales, Bulfinch's Mythology, Walter Farley horse books like The Black Stallion (I read them all), The Cloister and the Hearth and other historical novels too numerous to list, Fred Hoyle's The Nature of the Universe, and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which my mother gave me, interestingly enough. Oh, and the Bible, believe it or not, even though I was brought up as an atheist. The Old Testament's full of good stories, my personal favorites being those of David and Esther. I never could get into the New Testament.
Engel: Isn't Bambi wonderful? So much less innocent than the Disney version.
Sargent: You're right-the movie didn't exactly emphasize the polygamous habits of deer, and left out one particularly tragic character-the young deer who'd been raised by people, and thought hunters wouldn't kill him because of that.
Engel: Yes, the one who would walk into a meadow without seeing if it was safe. The scene where he is shot in front of Bambi and Faline is the one I remember most.
Sargent: Disney couldn't strip the story of all its power-the dark undercurrents are still there, and I still cry when I see it.
Engel: Have you seen The Black Stallion movie?
Sargent: Sure have, went to see it when it first came out. The audience in the theater watched in silence, totally enthralled, then spontaneously got up at the end to give it a standing ovation!
Engel: You mentioned The Feminine Mystique. What is that about?
Sargent: At the time it was published, the book was fairly controversial-some have called it the opening shot of the modern women's movement in this country, since Friedan raised hard questions about women's lives and a society that pretty much restricted them to the home. It's too bad her book's apparently been forgotten in recent years.
Engel: We haven't really discussed feminism in depth yet, though you've written elsewhere about it. Were you actively involved in the '60s and '70s? What are your feelings about it today?
Sargent: Emotionally, I was involved. Actively-that took a while. The thing is, I'd come to some conclusions about how to live my life fairly early, when I was still a kid. I knew I could never lead the kind of life a lot of women aspired to in the '50s and early '60s, and centering a life around a husband and children seemed the height of folly, for economic reasons if nothing else. I got to the point, especially after all my problems during my teens, of wanting to make sure I was never dependent on anyone else.
So when the feminist movement was first gathering strength, I wondered what the fuss was about. I figured that if I couldn't live a woman's life, I could live a man's, and consider my gender irrelevant to its conduct. I was studying philosophy, which meant I was often the only woman in many of my classes, with no female professors as mentors. It took a while to see that this was a kind of trap, too-Joanna Russ called it being an "honorary man." In other words, you're acceptable only if you can mimic the men around you, be as much like them as possible, and eventually it turns into a Catch-22. If you come on as too masculine, that's held against you, and any signs of latent femininity are also grounds for scorn, so you end up feeling isolated from almost everybody. Feminism opened my eyes. I began to wonder if one of the reasons I was concentrating on ethics in philosophy was because my professors considered that more suitable for women students then, say, symbolic logic or the philosophy of science. And like a lot of people who were involved in the anti-war movement, I became aware of how male-dominated that movement was.
So I did become a feminist, and still consider myself one, although I never got into organized feminism or consciousness-raising groups or any of that. After years of having psychiatrists trying to push me into group therapy and other such nonsense, the last thing I wanted was to sit around displaying my feelings in a consciousness-raising session. This may be a rationalization, but I felt I could do more by editing something like Women of Wonder, which would showcase the writings of some of my women colleagues, put money in their pockets, and introduce their work to readers who might be moved by the issues raised in it, then by messing around with organized group politics.
Engel: How did the Women of Wonder anthologies begin?
Sargent: Women of Wonder didn't start out as a series. I was trying to sell one anthology of science fiction by women in the early '70s, and getting nowhere. One reason was probably that I was a novice with no experience as an anthologist, so editors were justifiably nervous on those grounds, but I also ran into a lot of doubts about the theme, even hostility. Every house I submitted my proposal to rejected it.
Then I got lucky. Vonda McIntyre knew I'd been sending my proposal around, and suggested I try Vintage-she'd complained to them about a science fiction anthology they'd done which had only stories by men, and they said, "Well, why don't you do one by women?" She didn't want to step on my toes, and told me to send my book there, and Vintage bought it. This was an extremely generous act on her part, and I should add that she soon sold her own anthology of feminist science fiction [Aurora: Beyond Equality] to another publisher-sometimes there is justice in this world. The first Women of Wonder was popular enough for the publisher to ask for more.
About three years ago, I tried to sell Vintage a fourth volume, since there were so many women who'd come into the field since the first three were published. My editor said, basically, that she thought the time was past for such books.
It's true that women are hardly overlooked in this field now-walking into a bookstore or looking at lists of recent awards shows that. But there are still some questions to ask. Is women's writing in general, and in science fiction in particular, different in some essential way from men's? Is feminist analysis flawed-is it guilty of imposing a party line on women's experiences and any interpretation of them? Are more women writing a kind of science fiction that's closer to fantasy, and if so, does this broaden the genre or pollute it? Should the writer, in the end, be androgynous, able to imaginatively move beyond the restrictions of class, culture, and gender? Is there a backlash against feminism now because feminism failed in some way, or because it was succeeding? The way you choose to answer these questions will probably tell you whether you think there's a need for such anthologies or not. I'm still wrestling with the questions. Seems to me another Women of Wonder volume might be a good place to raise them.
Engel: It is interesting Vintage said no, since there have been several all women horror anthologies recently (i.e., Ptacek's Women of Darkness, Tuttle's Skin of the Soul), perhaps because horror is currently both very popular and very male-dominated. The predominant belief seems to be women cannot or do not write horror or hard science fiction.
Sargent: Hard science fiction demands a kind of discipline that's difficult for most writers, and generally speaking, unless your name is Clarke, Bear, Asimov, Benford, or Brin, it isn't understood by a lot of editors and doesn't fare well in the marketplace. It would be hard for any new writer, male or female, to make a mark there, to have the encouragement even to try, and Lois McMaster Bujold notwithstanding, maybe it's a bit harder for women, because there are still some unspoken assumptions about what kind of book a woman will write. My Venus books are hard science fiction, but got promoted as family sagas, presumably because that would sell better. Still, you'd be hard put to find blatant, overt prejudice against women writers in science fiction now.
I don't think Vintage was thinking of the situation in the field so much when they turned down my proposal, but of a general audience that's more ambivalent about feminism.
Engel: Have you tried to sell the idea of a fourth book to a small press?
Sargent: No, but only because there hasn't been time to pursue it. I haven't given up hope yet!
Engel: Besides the Women of Wonder books, how has feminism influenced your own writing?
Sargent: Anything that a writer feels deeply and believes in will influence her writing. I don't recall trying to be overtly or didactically feminist in a story, but what I think is bound to come through. Hasn't feminism affected everyone writing science fiction in one way or another? No one can write about the future now without considering women. A writer can have work that's enriched by the issues the women's movement has raised, work that wrestles with them, work that's a reaction to them or against them, or work that just tries to escape them altogether, pretending these issues don't exist or are irrelevant. I'm not much interested in the escapist, male adventure stuff, and it takes true amnesia to write as if the women's movement never happened. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people capable of such memory loss. "Oh, I'm not a feminist!" These folks are reacting to feminism-and if they're women, benefitting from the opportunities other women have opened up for them-while pretending the movement doesn't matter any more.
Engel: Have you seen the new Ms. magazine?
Sargent: I'm a subscriber. It can make for depressing reading, since the people who write for it do such an excellent job of showing how many battles still lie ahead. No wonder some people prefer to give up, or to assume that certain injustices will forever be part of the human condition.
Engel: Switching topics somewhat here, let's talk about The Shore of Women. You set the novel in a common post-disaster society for science fiction, where the men live apart from the women (i.e. Charnas's Motherlines, Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country). How do you think you approached this scenario differently?
Sargent: I'd better talk about how I wrote the book. At the beginning, all I had was a vision of a young man who had to make his way to a mysterious city. I knew he was living among men, but didn't know what he'd find at the end of his journey until another character began to speak to me, a young woman who lived in that city. The novel grew from that, but I had no idea what it was really about until I'd been writing it for a while. I assumed it'd be a novella until I reached page 200 and saw it would have to be longer. Writing it was largely-in the first draft, at least-an unconscious process, one in which I was discovering things along with the characters. The dilemmas they faced may mirror those in male-female relations-the negotiations, compromises, and different ways of viewing the world-but I was following the characters, sorting out things with them. Making any sort of didactic statement was the furthest thing from my mind.
The women in my novel control technology, while the men lead the lives of hunters and gatherers, which is certainly different from novels that assume the opposite, or assume that women would somehow use technology more humanely. The women in The Shore of Women are ruthless in making sure men can never threaten their dominance, and even within their cities, a small group pretty much decides things for the rest. This strikes me as human nature-people in power will try to preserve that power-but I got some flack from literal-minded sorts who have romantic views about women being more ethical and caring. I'm also not a separatist who thinks we women would be better off without men-that's concentration camp thinking, that's where it leads. But there's no doubt in my mind that many women would be happier in one of my cities, have a much better life, with the only price being the oppression of a group they'll never see for the most part. People make such bargains all the time.
Actually, that isn't the only price. The women's cities have preserved the knowledge of the past, but haven't advanced much beyond it-they can't, without risking the loss of what they have and the power they hold. Anyone who thought I was saying that a society of women would necessarily be static or lack innovation had it all wrong. Some in China and various other places are terrified of change and innovation for the same reason my women are.
One of the things I really enjoyed was creating the myths and customs for both the male and female societies in the book, of showing the different types of cultures that might exist in such a world. I think I treated the men sympathetically, which brought one reviewer to complain that I'd written another damned book about poor, misunderstood, oppressed men-she seemed to think this was illegitimate somehow, even though I'd also portrayed men who were cruel and women who had grave doubts about the world in which they lived. I don't believe in villains and heroes-life's too complicated for that.
I got potshots from doctrinaire types who found The Shore of Women insufficiently feminist and some grief from people who apparently don't want to read anything that questions their notions of gender roles or sexuality. But I also got a ton of mail from readers, many of whom hadn't read science fiction before, thanking me for the book. My two main characters, Arvil and Birana, were trying for reconciliation, and maybe readers responded to that.
Engel: Do you specifically explore male and female issues and problems in your novels?
Sargent: It isn't a conscious process-it grows out of the conflicts between individual characters, the dilemmas in which they find themselves. The issues and problems emerge from their interactions, which often surprise me. Most of the time, I have no conscious intention of exploring a particular issue.
Engel: Do you always follow this "nomadic" and wandering path to writing a novel or do you usually outline extensively?
Sargent: I'll usually have some idea of where I'm going, but not of how to get there. The trick is to have a structure that keeps you from wandering aimlessly but also allows you to explore things discovered during the writing; a detailed outline would be much too restrictive. I do assemble a lot of material before doing a book, though-I'll write short histories of the societies, descriptions of various details, draw maps, and make charts of various kinds. The stuff I put together for the Venus books is a short book in itself.
Engel: How do you avoid good vs. evil characters in a polarized novel like The Shore of Women?
Sargent: Some people do a lot of evil things. It's natural to see them as evil, as villains, and often it's practical, at least in the short term-lock them up, throw away the key, send them to the chair, bomb the hell out of their cities. It does settle things, for a while, until the next creep comes along, who's often a product of such righteous actions. Some people are probably beyond redemption, but if you're going to write about such people, you have to ask how they got that way, or how can you illuminate the possible motives for their actions? Some people do good for the wrong reasons, and have their own flaws. A lot of villains see themselves as heroes, which only demonstrates one of the pitfalls of viewing the world in terms of heroes and villains. Simplistic views are always more comforting, but novels shouldn't be simplistic or comforting.
Engel: Have you considered doing a book of non-fiction, perhaps a collection of your essays or a book in a similar vein as the introductions to the first three Women of Wonder books?
Sargent: Well, I haven't exactly been besieged with offers to do one. I am planning to do an essay of female characters in the genre that would be part of a book. I'm also writing a column, "Word Woman," for a magazine called Science Fiction Review. It's generally about whatever happens to strike my fancy at the moment, which is why one column's about an experience I had at the Space Obelisk in Moscow while traveling in the Soviet Union and another's about what it's like to do a booksigning in a mall. If any of this stuff stands the test of time, maybe a book will come out of it eventually.
Engel: I read your column about Moscow and I had similar experiences when I visited Cameroon in West Africa. All the young boys would be trying to sell the tourists little reed toys they'd built. Meanwhile, all the young girls were hauling water on their heads up the hills.
Sargent: When I was in the Russian countryside, outside the cities, I saw women washing their clothes on riverbanks. The boys would offer pins with Lenin's picture on them for gum or cigarettes. I went from Leningrad to Moscow by train-looked out the window at five in the morning and saw a village straight out of a Tolstoy novel. There were wooden houses with carved eaves and a horse and wagon coming down the dirt road. About two seconds later, the train was streaking past a humongous factory right out of the Stalinist 1930s.
Engel: How did you get an opportunity to travel to Moscow, business or pleasure? Before or after glasnost?
Sargent: I went in the summer of 1988. My ostensible reason was that I was thinking of setting a novel there, but the real one was that it just seemed like the time to go. I'd heard from people who had been there before that it was a pretty dreary and restricting experience, but things had loosened up a lot when I was there, at least in places like Moscow. I could sit around there in the evening and end up in a discussion with Russians, or travel around by myself or with a couple of other tourists on the Metro, which turned out to be a lot easier to navigate than the New York subways. The older people seemed a lot more wary of foreigners than the younger ones, for obvious historical reasons. In the countryside, almost everyone seemed suspicious of us.
It'd be harder to travel there now-I've had letters since then telling me how everything's falling apart, and it wasn't an easy trip in 1988-I came back with a case of pneumonia. We were heading down the Volga on a boat when I realized I was coming down with something, and had visions of ending up in a hospital in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, the fever didn't really take hold until we got to Finland, and I made it home before collapsing.
Engel: Let's skip to your Venus books, Venus of Dreams and Venus of Shadows. What research did you do on terraforming, religious cults and the other concepts in the novels?
Sargent: I read just about everything on Venus I could lay my hands on. The picture we had of that planet changed quite a lot during the time I first thought of my idea and when I started writing the books. The obstacles to terraforming seemed to increase the more I found out, and that meant more details to consider for my story. I'd thought at first that I could get the terraforming out of the way fairly quickly and concentrate on the people-my original inspiration for the book, strange as it may sound, was Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. I wanted to write a novel about a family, a realistic book reflecting the decline of the society they knew. Well, I was forced to do more with the terraforming, one of the reasons the one novel I had planned grew into three, but this was good-it enriched the story.
The most important reading I did on the subject was James Oberg's book New Earths, which is why I paid tribute by naming one of my Venus settlements after him. What was good about his book was that it discussed possible sociological reasons for launching a terraforming project, as well as the technical difficulties. I read a lot of history, which contributed to the societies I developed-I'd taken courses in Middle Eastern history and also did more reading about Islam, since that faith and culture dominates the Earth in my novels. It seemed to me that a desire to extend the Dar al-Islam-the abode of Islam, a society dominated by this faith-to other worlds provided a powerful rationale for terraforming, that it could grow out of the Islamic view of history. Reading Marvin Minsky's writing on artificial intelligence contributed to some thoughts about the Habber society. As for cults, it wasn't just reading, but experience-I've known people involved with cults, as I guess everyone has nowadays. I've seen how they change people, and I can understand why some folks feel driven to them.
Engel: Who influenced such driven characters as Iris and Risa?
Sargent: I've known people like that. Seems to me you'd have to be driven, even obsessive, to take part in such a vast project. Maybe you also have to be driven to write books as long as my Venus novels, which is why I understood those two women. My father had a fair number of friends who were local politicians, which probably influenced my portrait of Risa.
Engel: Everyone I have recommended the Venus books to has loved them, many putting them on their mental Top 10 list. The critics seemed to praise them almost uniformly. Yet, there were no Nebula or Hugo nominations. Do you feel your books have critical success, but are somehow not getting enough publicity? Or perhaps the current audience is not quite receptive to your content, preferring horror or light fantasy?
Sargent: I wish the critics had praised them uniformly, but I had a couple of reviews that were savage, and have come to live with the fact that the folks at Kirkus will forever wish I'd taken up another line of work. People either loved them or hated them-there wasn't much in between-but the good comments outnumbered the bad. You can't pay attention to this stuff-as a wise writer once said, you can't believe even the good reviews, or you might have to believe the bad ones. I never expected either book to get nominations-in over twenty years of writing, I've never been on a Hugo or Nebula final ballot, and have reluctantly concluded that I'm not fated to be a contender for either award. You learn to live with that, too, because the alternative is bitterness that only interferes with your writing.
I had some good editing on Venus of Dreams from Lou Aronica, which really helped make it a better book than it would have been otherwise. But when it came out, I'm afraid a lot of readers must have looked at it and thought, "Another goddamn paperback trilogy." I didn't want it pushed as the first in a trilogy, because the novel could stand alone as a single work (as can Venus of Shadows), and being presented that way may have hurt it. Doubleday Foundation was in business by the time I turned in Venus of Shadows, so they published a gorgeous hardcover of it, but a lot of people apparently never knew it was out-readers kept asking me when the second Venus book would be published, and I had to tell them it had been out for months. The paperback didn't get much push, either. I think they both would have done better if they had.
But that wasn't the only problem. The Venus books use hard science, which may have put off people who think such books are mostly hardware, and I have no constituency among hard science fiction readers. Venus of Dreams came out when the most prominent-or at least noisiest-literary movements in the field were the so-called new humanists and cyberpunks, and my novel didn't fit either approach. It fell between the cracks. To do a long, detailed novel with a lot of ideas and characterization, to give the reader the feeling of actually living in a fully-imagined world-no post-modernism there-must strike some people as an old-fashioned way to tell a story. The Venus books don't fit most of the prevailing fads.
I'm hoping more readers will discover them, because I think there is an audience for this sort of book, even if it's outnumbered by light fantasy and horror fans at the moment. Bantam plans to reissue the first two again when the third Venus book's ready, and an outfit called Easton Press is doing a special hardcover edition of Venus of Dreams, which will give it a little more permanence.
Engel: What are your feelings on the Cyberpunk movement (which has come and gone already)?
Sargent: It shook up the field, which is a good thing. Some fine writers were linked to the movement, and I enjoyed reading some of their work. I didn't like all the attitude, writers getting in the face of others who chose to write differently, all the hype. But that was probably a smart PR move-it got attention.
I suspect some cyberpunk writing's going to seem dated a few years from now, but that's a risk anyone writing about the near future takes. The good stuff will last.
Engel: Do you feel the Habbers in the Venus books contain many cyberpunk elements, without losing the humanity and positive outlook missing in many Cyberpunk stories?
Sargent: I guess they do-they're cyberutopians rather than cyberpunks. Actually, a "pure" cyberpunk story could be set on the future Earth I depict in the Venus books. The Habbers are the people who escaped that world.
Engel: What are you planning for the third Venus book?
Sargent: I don't like to talk much about a project until it's done, so all I can say is that it'll be very different from the first two books.
Engel: Do you have a title?
Sargent: At the moment, it's Child of Venus, which will probably remain the title unless there's a good reason for changing it.
Engel: Who bought the British rights to the series?
Sargent: Bantam's U.K. division, which doesn't seem to be pushing them that much. I don't know if that's because they're waiting for the third book to do so, or if they just don't care. My French editor, Gerard Klein at Editions Robert Laffont, has been much more supportive-they're doing Venus of Shadows next spring, and published Venus of Dreams and The Shore of Women earlier.
Engel: Do you prefer doing novels over short stories?
Sargent: It isn't so much that I prefer them, but when I'm thinking in novelistic terms, it's hard to scale down for a short story. I wind up writing something that threatens to turn into another novel! Writing a short story is more like writing a poem-or, as George puts it, a story's more like a string quartet, while the novel's a symphony.
Engel: Have you and George ever done a collaboration, either fiction or anthology?
Sargent: We've collaborated on exactly three short stories, and that's it. I'd started them, then didn't know what to do with them, which should have been a warning to put them aside until I did. I came to the conclusion that we could be collaborators, or have a relationship, but not both. We both have definite and in some ways different ideas about what we want to write, which is good, but doesn't make for easy collaboration.
Engel: How has your writing affected his and vice versa?
Sargent: That's a hard question to answer, because we work alone, and don't show things to each other as a rule until they're in final draft or close to it. Editorially, George has definitely helped me in certain ways-usually by pointing out places where I've used too many words or seeing where I didn't explore the implications of some idea or event as thoroughly as I might have. He's a demanding reader, as you probably know if you've read his Synergy anthologies, and he'll tell me if something doesn't measure up. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don't, but his comments usually make me aware of problems I might not otherwise see. As for how I've influenced him, George would have to tell you that. I think the main influence we have on each other is editorial, and even there, we're both very careful about not interfering or messing around with each other's writing. There's a difference between editing and rewriting.
I was talking to a would-be writer at a convention recently, and when she found out I lived with another writer, she asked me how we kept from killing each other. Maybe one reason is that we do work in isolation so much. We can be in the same room, but if we're writing, it's as if the other person isn't there. We try not to talk shop all the time, and keep ideas we might be nurturing to ourselves until the story's been written.
Engel: What is your Harlan Ellison connection? Amazingly (or perhaps not), everyone we've ever interviewed has had an answer to this one, so I had to ask.
Sargent: I remember-it must have been twenty years ago, and I think it was at an early Nebula banquet-I was listening to a bunch of writers talking about Harlan Ellison for an hour. Finally, I asked them what was going on, and one writer-I forget who-said, "You have to understand. When a group of science fiction writers get together, sooner or later Harlan becomes the main topic of conversation." A couple of years later, at another Nebula banquet, I finally met this man who struck terror into so many hearts, and he was-he'd probably puke to hear me say it-very sweet, extremely courteous.
Harlan did me a big favor, although he may not remember it, and probably didn't intend it as such. He encouraged me to send him a story for The Last Dangerous Visions. He rejected the first one I submitted, and he was right to do so, even though it hurt-it might have been dangerous, but it sucked. Then I decided to try him with another, a long story I planned to use in my novel Cloned Lives if I could ever make a novel of it-at the time, it was only some interconnected stories. He rejected this one, too, but with a letter-it was seven or eight pages long-explaining, in great detail, exactly how it sucked. It was devastating, the kind of missive that can bring you to give up writing altogether. It depressed me for weeks. I learned a hell of a lot from that letter, because he was right-I saw that after I stopped licking my wounds. I scrapped that story and completely rewrote that section when I sold Cloned Lives. There's no question in my mind that Harlan's criticisms made the book better. You could also say that it's just as well he didn't take it, or Cloned Lives would never have been published, but that's another story.
When I was editing Afterlives, an anthology I did with Ian Watson, we wanted to use "The Region Between" in that book. No one had ever reprinted this powerful story-I soon found out why. There were lots of Jack Gaughan graphics, which had to be included, and lots of innovative typography, and no way Harlan was going to grant us permission unless all of that was included. There were several crazed, traumatic phone calls between me, my editor Anne Freedgood at Vintage, and Harlan, much Federal Expressing of galleys and proofs, threats to withdraw the story a month before Afterlives was to go to press, many suicidal thoughts on my part. But we brought it out, and in the form Harlan wanted. Even in the depths of despair, I couldn't get mad at Harlan, because I knew what drove him-he's a perfectionist, for one thing, and he's been screwed before. He wanted the story done right, and you have to respect that. I have a lot of respect for Harlan. Even when he's wrong, or makes a mistake, it's because he cares, because he has standards, which is more than you can say about a lot of people.
Engel: What brought about Afterlives? What made you decide to do a collection about life after death?
Sargent: I'd been corresponding with Ian Watson for a long time. The anthology was Ian's idea; he pointed out that, with the exception of an anthology called Five Fates, no one had tried a purely science-fictional anthology about life after death. There's plenty of writing about ghosts, the supernatural, and religious visions, along with science fiction about immortality, but little treating life after death as a real possibility in the way science fiction deals with other concepts. Ian proposed that we do the book together, and I took it to Vintage, since I'd done anthologies for them before.
I had personal reasons for wanting to do the book, too. By chance, unknown to Ian, my father was dying at the time Ian first wrote to me about his idea. Working on it was a way of dealing with my grief.
Engel: Could you tell a little about your upcoming novel?
Sargent: The title's Ruler of the Sky, and it's about Genghis Khan.
Engel: Why did you write about Genghis Khan?
Sargent: It probably does seem an odd choice. I first considered such a book years ago-I wanted to write about his early life, before he became what some would call one of the great villains of history. The young Temujin-his name before he acquired the title of Genghis Khan-had a pretty adventurous life even as a child. His father died when he was around nine, his mother and family were abandoned by his father's followers and had to struggle to survive, he killed a half-brother who was making his life miserable, he was captured by enemies and managed to escape them, then had to go after some thieves who had stolen his family's few horses. Later, he gathered an army to rescue his young wife Bortai when she was captured by other enemies-and all of that happened before he was eighteen. Thinking such an exciting story might appeal to younger readers, I proposed a novel to my young adult editor at Harper & Row. She turned it down for various reasons, but I often wondered if the unspoken reason might have been that a teenaged Genghis Khan didn't seem a suitable role model for young readers.
It was probably for the best, because I was beginning to become a lot more interested in some of the women around him, who were a formidable bunch. His mother Hoelun-I guess you could say she was a single parent-had to look out for him until he was old enough to gather followers and claim his place. His first wife Bortai often gave him important advice, and he took other wives with him-he had several-on his campaigns. I was beginning to glimpse a largely untold story, that of Mongol women. It's one that definitely presents the issues and dilemmas of male-female relations in extremely stark terms.
I didn't know when I could ever write such a book, find the necessary time and resources to do the work without knowing if a publisher would ever be interested. The idea might have languished in my files, but Lisa Healy, my editor at Crown for The Shore of Women, wanted another novel from me, and preferred to see something that wasn't science fiction. At the same time, Carmen Callil, my editor at Chatto & Windus-she bought the British rights to Shore-was also telling me I should try something outside the genre. It wasn't that either of them lacked respect for science fiction, only that they both thought I might be able to reach a wider audience.
This was my chance, and I would have been a fool to ignore it. I'd assumed, as a lot of writers do, that it would be close to impossible to interest anyone in a book outside my usual category, and here were two editors encouraging me to do exactly that. I wrote a long proposal and offered it to Crown. They accepted it, and Chatto bought the British rights shortly afterward, even before I started writing the novel.
Engel: Where did you do your research?
Sargent: Getting into Mongolia itself was impossible. I tried, and had one fellow tell me that the few people he knew who actually went there said they could have lived without the experience. But I've sworn I'll get there someday-I want to stay in the Genghis Khan Hotel, which is being built in Ulan Bator. People are really into Genghis Khan there. I read an article in the New York Times Magazine recently about a Mongolian rock band whose audience went wild when they lowered a big poster of him in the middle of their performance.
So I had to do the usual-make ample use of libraries. A friend in the history department at the university here helped me get some books, and I own most of the primary sources-The Secret History of the Mongols (in the Harvard-Yenching edition), accounts by medieval travelers, and Marco Polo being the most important.
Research is tricky. It's very easy to fall into the trap of not writing anything until you've researched every last little detail that might be missing, and pretty soon it's an excuse not to write the book. The other side of that coin is thinking every last thing you've dug up has to be shoveled into the book, but I think I avoided that by some ruthless cutting. If it wasn't essential to the story, out it went. Given that the book's over 1200 pages long in manuscript, you may wonder what I could have cut, but the story's so huge, with so many characters, that it had to be as clear and economical as possible. A book that size isn't just structure, it's architecture. And, with a historical novel, the writer has to get beyond the research. Novelists have to deal with people's interior lives, and history doesn't have a lot to say about that, especially in the period I was writing about. I was also writing about Mongolian women, about whom history says even less. Except for Hoelun, Bortai, and a couple of others, most of the important female characters in my book are hardly more than a couple of lines or a footnote in the sources.
Engel: Do you know how the novel will be marketed?
Sargent: I assume as a historical saga for a wide audience. The reactions from my editors have been great-they not only think it's a good book, but said they couldn't put it down. Jean Auel's editor has taken an interest in it at Crown, so I'm hoping the novel will get some push.
Engel: Any publication date announced? Will it be out by Wiscon?
Sargent: Definitely not by Wiscon! I think the earliest it could be out is the Fall of '91. I still have to make my last changes in the manuscript, but I'm getting some wonderful editing-real line editing, the kind that's almost a lost art, where an editor gets down to the little details that can make all the difference.
Engel: What influenced you now, in this part of your life, to break from science fiction?
Sargent: Obviously the encouragement of these two editors was important; to feel that an editor has faith in you is crucial. I was also going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, feeling very much in the need of a change-it's always good to try something different, keep from growing stale. Also, after years of writing science fiction, it seemed that my work was only disappearing once it was out, that it wasn't finding the audience I'd hoped it might have. In a sense, I had nothing to lose. Maybe if I'd had tremendous success in science fiction, it would have been harder to break away.
Whether this is a permanent break or just a trial separation remains to be seen. There's still my third Venus book to finish, and other books I want to write, so I'm not ready to issue one of those public "I'm leaving the field" announcements-at which point everyone yawns, while the writer creeps back into the fold some time later. The ideal situation would be to be able to write science fiction and other kinds of novels, without being restricted to one or the other, but I've learned not to hope for too much.
Engel: Recently, it seems many high-quality authors are doing the same-moving outside the field-for similar reasons (Lew Shiner, Michael Bishop). Has this always happened in the field?
Sargent: Didn't Greg Bear once say that science fiction eats its young? I think people burn out writing it for various reasons. The intellectual and creative demands on anyone who wants to write science fiction the way it should be written are huge. The science fiction market, as it exists for most writers except for the favored few, doesn't nurture writers, either-you must constantly keep producing, constantly have new work out to set before the readers, write at a pace that's sometimes inhuman. Anyone who didn't try other things would almost have to burn out. It's indicative that writers who have been in the field over the long haul-Fred Pohl, Poul Anderson, Bob Silverberg, to name only three who come to mind immediately-have done other kinds of writing and have wide interests.
Engel: Does the science fiction market feel that restrictive? In what way?
Sargent: The size of the audience is limited. It shouldn't be, but it is. The same thing's true of the audience for books in general, but science fiction's audience is even smaller. After a while, you get the feeling that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you'll keep coming up against that limit, and it's especially frustrating if you feel, as I do, that a lot of intelligent readers who don't normally read science fiction might enjoy your books. I can't tell you the number of letters I've had from readers who came upon my books almost by accident and said they loved them, even though they "don't read science fiction" or "usually hate that stuff." The book goes into a system that almost guarantees no one will see it, be attracted to it, or even know about it unless he already reads "that stuff."
The way publishers deal with you is often demoralizing. A few months back, I was talking to a new writer who had just signed a multi-book contract. His editor asked him, "How soon can you crank them out?" I used to wonder why some editors, with all their concern for how much money their books are making-or losing-didn't realize that one of the cheapest ways to encourage writers to give them the really wonderful books they claim to want is to show some common courtesy. Writing a note, making a phone call-not to pressure the writer, just to ask how things are going and to discuss the book-showing some normal courtesy and consideration. That kind of thing can do wonders for a writer's morale-I know, because I've had editors like that. I'll give you an example. When my editor left Crown to go to another house, she called me up to reassure me and tell me of all the efforts she made to make sure my book was in the hands of another editor she trusted implicitly, and even looked after my novel when it was no longer her official responsibility. When the editor working on one of my science fiction novels left her job, I found out about it in Locus, and my book-right at the stage where galleys were being sent out, that crucial pre-publication period-was adrift for a month with no one in charge of it as far as I could tell. Well, I know why that kind of thing happens-editors are overworked and don't have time even for normal courtesies. A book the writer's slaved away on is just fodder for that month's slot.
Maybe I've gone on too much about the business of science fiction, as opposed to the art, but this atmosphere affects what's produced. Science fiction editors want to move books. They can sell them more easily if they stick some kind of label on them. So if a writer makes a big splash with something truly original, the publishers try to get more of the same-from that writer or others. New writers, who should be exploring lots of different avenues and finding their own voice, are encouraged to adapt to the marketplace-this is called "being a pro." They are often encouraged to sign multi-book contracts or to commit themselves to trilogies at just the point when they're learning what a novel is, and if they're successful, they're trapped into doing more of the same. If they're not, they get discarded while the editors look for other new writers. The serious writers in this field produce fine work almost in spite of this environment, and often aren't encouraged to take real creative risks. It's as if the system's designed to discourage all but a few of the books and stories that really define the field and show what it should be. So many potentially fine writers are wasted, and the editors, even with the best will in the world, are pushed to get more product, as it's called in the trade, into their monthly slots.
One of the things that's fucked up this country in recent years is the lack of support for research into areas that aren't immediately practical. People want guarantees that a particular venture's going to pay off, and that attitude's reflected in publishing. There were times when I was writing Ruler of the Sky that I despaired. I felt that way with a lot of my books, but with this one, it'd be hard to exaggerate the anguish I felt, which brought me close to a complete mental breakdown-and I had more support than a lot of writers get when they feel driven to move in another direction. Sometimes I would think that it would have been easier to stay in the modest little niche I'd carved out for myself, but in my saner moments I'd realize that feeling meant I was doing what I had to do, because it can never be easy, and shouldn't be.
With all the support in the world, along with editors and a climate that might push writers to follow any directions they feel they must, even at the risk of complete failure, it still wouldn't be easy. But at least more writers might be following the paths they should.
This interview was conducted entirely through the U. S. Mail from May to December 1990.