Thursday, October 09, 2008

An Interview with Elizabeth Bear

Thursday, October 09, 2008
Back in early September Elizabeth Bear was gracious enough to subject herself to an interview with me via e-mail. It will come to no surprise to any readers of this blog, but on the strength of her Promethean Age novels Bear has quickly become one of my favorite writers working today. and with each novel she has demonstrated skill, grace, and power in her storytelling. Basically, y'all need to go read her books.

Who is Elizabeth Bear as a writer? What should readers know about you, or better yet, what would you like readers to know about you?

Bear: Ideally, actually, the stories should stand on their own. I don't think the readers should *care* about me. I'm just the man behind the curtain.

In The Promethean Age novels you blend real world characters with magic, Faerie, angels, and devils. How did the idea of The Promethean Age come about?

Bear: ...See? That's one of those unanswerable questions. Never ask a writer where their ideas come from. We don't know. Or if we do know, it would be awfully complicated to explain and make no sense in the explaining. I mean, I could tell you that the idea of the Prometheus Club comes from similar real secret hermetic and/or political organizations--the Golden Dawn, the Hellfire Club, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and so on... but that's not really helpful, is it?

Why make it into an open ended series?

Bear: Because I had a bunch of different story ideas that fit into the same logical structure and set of worldbuilding constraints.

The back cover of Ink and Steel states that with that novel you "reveal the origins of The Promethean Age". While you are not responsible for jacket copy, nothing about the text of Ink and Steel suggests that this truly is an origin story. On your website there is a listing for a planned Promethean Age novel (Dog and Crow) set a century before Ink and Steel. Without spoiling the novel or future stories you plan to write, where does the Promethean Age really begin?

Bear: Actually, I think if you read the Stratford Man books closely, you will find that they do in fact discuss exactly where the organization known as the Prometheus Club originated, who its originator(s) are or were, and what its initial purpose was. And Blood and Iron talks about the deep history of the Dragon Princes and the Merlins, which is another vital aspect of the worldbuilding.

With another "where did it all come from" question, can you tell me a bit about the concept of "all stories are true"? This is one of my favorite aspects of the four Promethean Age novels because through that concept, readers can see in a very literal way how fiction can shape reality.

Bear: See, you keep asking that question--where do you get your ideas?

I've been working on these books since 1987, man. I do not remember the origin of that particular sentence. And honestly, I probably wouldn't if I had just come up with it last year.

One thing I appreciate most about these novels is how very real all of the characters feel, even the "minor" characters. A character like Lucifer Morningstar could so easily fall into the stereotype of who or what "The Devil" is supposed to be, but in this series Lucifer comes across as somewhat sympathetic but also as a natural and rational being rather than a one dimensional cut out. I'm not sure what the exact question is here, since this was obviously intentional on your part, but can you talk a little bit about the challenges inherent in writing so many distinct characters?

Bear: One dimensional or stereotypical characters are bad writing. *g* Generally speaking, one tries to make all characters as well-rounded as possible. One does this by giving them agendas, goals, backstory trauma, hopes, aspirations, things they love and fear.

Also, the Devil will steal *any* scene you put him in, and he always gets the best dialogue. It's in his contract. He does it in every story and every movie he's in, anywhere, from Faustus to Letters from the Earth to The Devil and Daniel Webster to Sandman to The Prophecy. Check it out; I think you'll find it's true.

He gets the best dialogue in the Bible, too.

Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth were originally conceived of as a single volume titled The Stratford Man. Were there any particular changes you made to the novel when you split them into two volumes or was there already a natural break at the end of Act III?

Bear: Well, it's a five-act structure. Those come with a break at the end of Act III so you can put an intermission there! I wound up frontloading a lot of exposition into Hell and Earth for people who might be coming to the game late, however, or have taken a few years off between the two books.

In the afterword to Hell and Earth you write about the extensive research you did for The Stratford Man. You were successful in making the reader feel as if he or she stepped into late sixteenth century London while maintaining a modern style so that the historic detail complements the story rather than overwhelms the story of Kit and Will. How did you balance the historic detail necessary to convey a sense of place and be true to the setting with the need to write a story in a style easily accessible to a modern reader?

Bear: Very carefully.

Basically, one tries to avoid gratuitous periodicity. You don't put stuff in--whether it's costuming details or gratuitous cameos by random famous people of the day--unless they serve a story purpose other than showing off your research. Good research is like an iceberg: 9/10th is under the surface.

What is next for The Promethean Age? I understand there is at least a partially written manuscript for a novel titled One Eyed Jack and the Suicide King.

Bear: The Promethean Age currently has no publisher, so right now, nothing is next for it. I have a draft of another book completed, but there's no guarantee it will ever see print.

Switching topics to my new favorite tv show which never existed, Emma Bull has written about how she came to create Shadow Unit, but can you talk a bit about your involvement in Shadow Unit and what excites you about the project?

Bear: Emma asked me to help. ;-)

I don't think there's anything that *doesn't* excite me about the project. It's like getting to play make-believe with the most amazingly creative people in existence, while writing about a variety of topics that fascinate me. And then talk about with some very cool fans.

I believe that both you and Emma Bull have stated in the past that five seasons of Shadow Unit are planned. Do you know what the story arcs are this far in advance and where you plan on taking the series, or is it just a vague idea of where things will end up which may change depending on how these next seasons go?

Bear: We know what happens. Things may develop, of course, but the major plot arcs are determined.

Any chance you can offer a hint or two as to what readers can expect from Season Two?

Bear: You mean, besides mayhem?

No, not really. Except, of course, terribly predictable things--more character development, more of the world revealed, more backstory, assorted triumphs and tragedies, and a lot of monsters of the week.

All the Windwracked Stars is the first volume of your new trilogy The Edda of Burdens and is scheduled to be published in November. I've seen you describe All the Windwracked Stars as "periApocalyptic Norse steampunk noir high fantasy", which has to be one of the most baffling yet fascinating descriptive labels ever to be slapped on a book. Can you expand upon that description a bit and talk about All the Windwracked Stars?

Bear: End of October, actually.

AtWS is a story which takes place after, during, and before the end of the world. In that order, yes.

It stars a valkyrie who has gotten herself shipwrecked in time, a kickboxing gigolo, a kitten with a whip, a two-headed iron horse, and a nihilistic wolf, and it's about all sorts of things--the differences--or lack thereof--between service and slavery being one of them.

Congratulations on the Hugo Award for your short story "Tideline". What does winning the award mean to you personally and what do you hope it will mean for you professionally?

Bear: Alas, I hate to disillusion you, but to take the second half of your question first--it's generally accepted in the industry that the only award that has any effect on sales whatsoever is the Best Novel Hugo, and that is a minuscule bump at best.

What it means to me personally is a little different. It's a wonderful, flattering vote of confidence from the readers and fans, and I could not be more pleased that the SFF community enjoyed "Tideline" and chose to tell me--and the world--about it. Also, it's been a wonderful opportunity for every single person I know even slightly to bust my ass from here to Texas and back. *g*

On your livejournal I have seen frequent updates regarding the novella "Bone and Jewel Creatures". According to your website this is tentatively slated for publication from Monkeybrain Books in late 2008 or early 2009. What can you say about "Bone and Jewel Creatures"?

Bear: ...not much, I'm afraid, without giving away spoilers. But it takes place on a made-up world in a made-up city called Messaline, which is a little Arabian Nights and a little H. G. Wells.

I don't have anything resembling a firm publication date for it, however, or even a solid guess.

As if this year were not already busy enough, you are also working with John Scalzi on a shared world project for Are you able to talk at all about your part and give any details about the project as a whole?

Bear: It's a collection of five novellas by five different authors, set in a shared near-future setting, exploring different aspects of potential social and political ramifications of a particular type of economic revolution. I'm not actually certain that the anthology has a final title yet--several were being bandied about--but I'm pretty sure that John will blog about it extensively as the release date nears.

(Since this interview John Scalzi has, in fact, spilled the beans. It's called Metatropolis and it comes out October 21 - Joe)

With four books published this year, six stories, the debut of Shadow Unit, "Bone and Jewel Creatures" on the horizon, and the audio project, 2008 could reasonably be considered The Year of the Bear. I'm almost exhausted just thinking about it. What do readers have to look forward to from you in 2009 and beyond?

Bear: "The Year of the Bear?" I am giving your hyperbole a skeptical look over the top of my glasses right now, but you can't see it because there's an internet in the way.

In 2009, if the creek don't rise, I'll have two novels see print (Chill and By The Mountain Bound) and a novella (Seven for a Secret.) And maybe a couple of short stories.

Also, Shadow Unit season two is in the works, of course.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer some questions. It was a pleasure.

Bear: Likewise!


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