Lately, I've been visiting writer's museums. The Pushkin museum brought into focus for me something I'd been noticing subliminally for some time: that none of the writers who are presented to us in school as though they were lone geniuses were, in fact, alone. Every one of them, when I looked further, came out of a context of other writers, readers, letter writers and other correspondents, editors, artists, bright friends, and just people generally who cared enough to argue about the issues around which they wrote. --Lois McMaster Bujold
PHOTO BY JANA FREIBAND</div align>
(Left to right) Lois McMaster Bujold, Patricia Wrede, Pamela Dean, Peg Kerr, Lyda Morehouse, and Caroline Stevermer (not pictured: Eleanor Arnason)
Eleanor Arnason: In 1978, Arnason published her first novel, The Sword Smith; four others followed, including the acclaimed Ring of Swords (1993), a slippery account of political negotiations between humans and a homosexual alien race, the Hwarhath. Since then, Arnason has concentrated on short stories, many about the Hwarhath: "The Potter of Bones" and "Knapsack Poems" were nominated for Nebulas this year.
Lois McMaster Bujold: Author of the Nebula-winning Miles Vorkosigan series, tricky sci-fi space opera for people who like their heroes self-conscious and their moral dilemmas well-examined. Bujold also writes a complex fantasy series, the latest installment of which is Paladin of Souls. Moved to Minneapolis from Ohio in 1995 after years of friendship with Patricia Wrede.
Pamela Dean: One of the original "Scribblies"--a writing group including Wrede, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, and Steven Brust who first started meeting in 1980. Dean's best-known Scribblies-era work was Tam Lin, a literary college tale infiltrated by Faerie. In 1998, she published Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, another contemporary story tilted by magic. Her Secret Country YA fantasy trilogy was just re-released; a sequel will follow.
Peg Kerr: Says Wrede inspired one sharply opinionated character in the gem-cutter's fantasy Emerald House Rising. Her The Wild Swans (1999) intertwines 17th-century fantasy and 1980s AIDS struggle. Kerr's husband was at Carleton with Dean and Wrede and she was mentored by Arnason. She writes with Caroline Stevermer.
Lyda Morehouse: Fashions masterful train wrecks out of hard-boiled detective fiction, angelic fantasy, cyberpunk, and apocalypse prose. Apocalypse Array, the fourth book in her near-future series, will be released later this year. "Potentially younger than the other people here," she calls Arnason a mentor.
Caroline Stevermer: Her "fantasy of manners," A College of Magics, is at once an alternative history of Europe, circa 1900, with magic and extra countries; a women's college cosy; a queasy adventure; and a topsy-turvy romance. The just-published sequel is titled A Scholar of Magics.
Patricia Wrede: Prolific inventor of flying blue donkeys and other comically fantastic stuff for her award-winning children's Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Wrede also writes fantasy in both medieval and regency settings. The epistolary novel, Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, written with Stevermer, was re-published in '03, and a sequel, The Grand Tour, is expected before the year is out. Helped midwife Bujold's entry into writing.
It may be just as difficult to figure why most of our best known and most celebrated sci-fi and fantasy writers are women. One, Eleanor Arnason, will be the guest of honor this weekend at WisCon--the world-renowned feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin. In a spirit of inquiry, we decided to round up Arnason and six other ingenious local women sci-fi/fantasy novelists for a chat outside the Anodyne Cafe. It was hardly the first time they'd met; most of them have been in writing groups together. Their zigzagging discussion visited a cosmic range of subjects: the metaphor of violence, male-on-male porn (written by lesbians), differing definitions of "conservative", and the lasting influence of Han Solo. Arnason missed the group grope and was interviewed separately at the Black Dog in St. Paul.
CITY PAGES: Many of you have written stories from the point of view of a man with a weapon: a gun or a sword. What's the attraction of this image?
ELEANOR ARNASON: One thing that's happening is that you're dealing with the stereotypes of science fiction. Which has had kinda butch guys since the 1930s pulp magazines: two-fisted, tough, and violent. The pulp tradition tends to lead to plots where problems are solved by violence. And I think we're seeing a really good example in Iraq of precisely how useful violence is in solving problems. So one of the things I've done in a lot of stories is have characters who don't manage to use violence successfully. Or who decide, when they reach the point of crisis, that violence is not an option. Ring of Swords came out of two things. One was that I wanted to write about a culture where homosexuality was normal, and heterosexuality was weird. And I also wanted to write the kind of story I would not normally write. I have no use in general for military space opera; I don't like anything that glorifies war. So it was really a thought experiment. In the end, it's a story that is set up to have a war, and the major characters decide that, instead, they're going to have a Shakespeare festival. Much better idea.
LYDA MOREHOUSE: For me it comes back to roles I didn't get to play as a kid--which I did play anyway--and that I think just leaked into my fiction. Getting to shoot the blaster was the cool part. Even my heroine carries a big gun; it's a Magnum. Which I have shot! I did one of those safety programs. And I discovered that the bigger the gun, the better shot I was.
PATRICIA WREDE: Size does matter.
PEG KERR: Conflict is the engine of plot, and warriors are about conflict. It's a chance to examine power and the way it plays out in human relationships.
WREDE: Especially when you're just getting started as a writer. What is conflict? It's people bashing each other. I find myself moving away from that as I get more interested in doing things with other kinds of conflict.
LOIS BUJOLD: I will say that with my warrior characters the worst wounds have been from words, and not from weapons. Those are the ones that don't heal after 20 years.
PAMELA DEAN: I actually decided I would just give up on weapons after my first three books. There was a war in there because fantasy novels have wars in them. But it made me nervous. I'm so completely clumsy and incapable of handling a sword or a gun that I just gave up on it.
MOREHOUSE: There's something for me that's inherently sexy about a guy with a sword. I was thinking about this in terms of me as a reader. Why did I ever pick up the fantasy genre with covers that ought not to appeal to a young woman--you know, with the big guy with the sword on the cover? Power is a big part of it. There's something about swordplay that's also a mental challenge, particularly at close range.
CAROLINE STEVEMER: There's a code, even with hardboiled detective novels. The hero abides by the code. He may not be the only good man in the world, but he's the best man in the world that he's in. I'm thinking of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler. To just have people flailing away at each other has so much less interest than whatever kind of interaction it is, according to the rules.
KERR: But also with swords, you've got the hero and the antagonist within arm's length of each other. So they have a chance to talk.
BUJOLD: Yes, there's better dialogue in swordplay than in gunfights.
CP: Is the idea that the warrior is vulnerable to words a fantasy?
DEAN: Look at all the people who came back from Vietnam and remembered with horror being spat on by protestors. The vets that I've talked to seemed to feel that that was just as bad as the other things that happened to them.
BUJOLD: "Soldier" is a role that people take off and put on. But they're people before they become soliders; they're people after they put that role down. And they're not something else in between, even if they're finding themselves caught up in something.
CP: How has feminism challenged you in your work?
STEVEMER: I [grew up in] a small-library sort of place. If it won an award, they might have the third book in the series. And I have a real fondness for "ripping yarns," like The Prisoner of Zenda. But I longed for a story with a good part for the girl. The feeble, beautiful, helpless, to-be-rescued women in these books were such a disappointment. It's probably just as well, because it kept my mind off some of the other things that were being said in these books, about colonialism and all kinds of ghastly "isms."
CP: You didn't want to be Han Solo?
MOREHOUSE: I wanted to be Han Solo!
BUJOLD: I read all these British boys' adventure yarns without ever noticing that they weren't addressed to me.
MOREHOUSE: Me too!
KERR: You would've been a great Han Solo, Lyda.
MOREHOUSE: I was, in fact, a great Han Solo, in my own backyard. I didn't worry about the fact that I wasn't the right gender. Princess Leia was pretty cool, but I liked kissing the girl too, so there you go. Although when I set out to write Archangel Protocol, I purposely wanted to write a strong female character that someone like myself would [hope to] find. Of course later I discovered there's tons of people writing this stuff! [Laughs] Definitely I would say that the women of the science fiction community have supported me in ways that I'd never felt anywhere else.
BUJOLD: I was hitting my first reading in the early '60s, so feminism wasn't even there yet. So I was basically oblivious as an early writer to all those issues. I did focus on the female heroes that I met in science fiction books, like "The Ship Who Sang" characters. In the fiction, that kind of equality seemed a feasible sort of thing. In the real life that was going on around me, it was not so sanguine.
DEAN: For me, there was feminism, but it was all 19th-century feminism; it was focused on getting women the vote, the right to work. And it was all over. What I didn't get was gender-role stereotyping. My first novel had been published, I was revising the second one, and I suddenly looked at it and thought, "What the hell did I do? Why are all the male characters doing this, and the female characters doing that--that's grotesque!." Now the book was a deliberate homage to people like E. Nesbitt, Edward Eager, and C.S. Lewis, all of whom were writing in a really standard tradition. I just barely had time to decide that in this society, men and women were separate but equal. So that when you had a king, everybody who did politics was male, and when you had a queen, everybody who did politics was female. But I almost put something out there that was contrary to what I thought, but had been taken unconsciously from all my reading.
WREDE: I'm the oldest of five, my mother always worked. This was the '50s, '60s. The impact of feminism for me was, "Well, so? Doesn't everybody think that?" In my family, there was no question about gender-role stereotyping. I have twin girl cousins who are fur trappers in Alaska. Did feminism impact my writing? I don't think so.
KERR: I think that one of my primary introductions to feminism was reading Pamela Sargent's series Women of Wonder. Lois says she writes about identity. I think feminism is, for women and men, trying to discover the largest identity for them possible--not allowing them to be circumscribed by gender roles. Because I'm interested in that, I write that.
ARNASON: I wrote one story ["Knapsack Poems"] that I'm very happy with in which the protagonist is essentially a single being made of eight separate people: Some are female, some male, and some neuter. That was enormously fun to write. What is a person who is all sexes at once? I do a lot of dealing with sexual stereotypes. I'd say it's probably the main thing I do. I think that one of the useful things for women writing science fiction is that most of the science fiction *ACCENT cliches are things that sort of abrade women, or prickle them. They're not the conventions that women feel 100 percent comfortable with. If you're writing a kind of fiction where you're comfortable with the conventions, it's much easier to fall into sloppy writing habits.
MOREHOUSE: I just want to know why there aren't more female characters like Han Solo in the movies. Loners with no apparent connection to small animals or children.
BUJOLD: He certainly doesn't have to call his mother every week, or at least we don't see him doing it.
WREDE: The secret diaries of Han Solo.
MOREHOUSE: "Hi, Mom..."
KERR: She must be a kick-butt woman.
BUJOLD: 'Cause he's gone as far away from her as he can. [Laughter]
CP: What, if anything, have you learned from writing from a male character's perspective?
DEAN: I'm going to parse the question. The gender of the character is really not relevant. If I were writing a contemporary novel set in the U.S. in certain subcultures that I would run screaming from, I would have to cope with it. But since it's all imaginary cultures or contemporary-looking ones where there's a little twist in reality, it simply doesn't come up.
WREDE: It's a lot harder for me switching from a medieval character, male or female, to a modern one. Unless you have a culture where the gender roles are very strong and explicit...
MOREHOUSE: Like Eleanor's done.
WREDE: ...but I've just never been interested in exploring that particular.
BUJOLD: I've written from both viewpoints, and the female characters always feel more claustrophobic to me. They're tighter, they run more safety calculations in their heads. I find that writing male characters is more free; the characters are freer to move in a way. The other difference is not so much inside the character's head, but how the world reacts to the character, whether they are male or female. The environment shapes character.
WREDE: But that's the society you've made up. If you have a truly egalitarian society, then it doesn't react differently based on gender. But that is something that seems to be extraordinarily different for anyone in this culture to imagine thoroughly or escape . .
STEVEMER: But also if you want any conflict...
WREDE: But you get conflict from other places...
KERR: That's also a great way to explore culture in fiction. Lois has a very multifaceted universe. You can learn a lot about the cultures by how they approach the same character based on their gender.
ARNASON: Well, I was very nervous about it, because I was not only writing from the point of view of a man, but of a gay man. I did a tremendous amount of background research. I read a lot of books by gay men. And I asked two friends of mine who were gay men to vet the book. The absolute fear I had was that I was going to stumble onto some kind of gay slang by accident and say something really embarrassing. I think what happens is that if a character works, at a certain point the character becomes so plausible to you that you're no longer looking at them from the outside.
MOREHOUSE: I'm actually going to cop to feeling guilty, because it hadn't occurred to me that the books after Archangel Protocol follow more men than women! One thing that happened was that I fell in love with a villain--Satan. I find him hot. In my current novel, I'm writing about a gay man. I guess it's very hard for me to write about a strong woman because like I said my reading experience was that I tended to be Han Solo.
CP: I read that a fan told Lyda that her Satan, or Morningstar, reminded her favorably of "hurt-comfort" slash. "Slash," for our readers, is a sometimes pornographic subgenre of fiction written and circulated by fans of certain books, movies, and TV shows. The classic example of slash involves Kirk and Spock discovering their mutual passion. Could someone describe the "hurt-comfort" variety?
DEAN: There's a sublimated romantic relationship, generally between people of the same sex, but not always these days. And these people either don't know, or can't talk about it, or are committed elsewhere. So you isolate them somewhere and have one of them be injured. Sometimes the romantic stuff actually becomes revealed, and sometimes it's still completely sublimated, but the act of one caring for the other is a way of expressing the underlying emotion without actually transgressing whatever it is they can't transgress.
MOREHOUSE: Wow, you explained that really succinctly! I've admitted that I was looking at slash fiction at the time [I was writing]. I went to see that godawful film, Episode One, we'll call it. I left so ready to write fan fiction. I realized that what fan fiction comes out of is a general dissatisfaction with the character and the world.
BUJOLD: You want to fix it.
MOREHOUSE: People want to write in your universe [to Lois], because they want it to continue. But there's also that other part, "This was so irritating!" So I ended up foolishly reading a bunch, and of course I found the slash. There's some Obi Wan Kenobi slash--it was bad. I think there was some secret influence there.
BUJOLD: It's a laboratory of gender studies. I think that if somebody can ever explain "hurt/comfort," you will have reached a great insight into the female gender that still eludes me. It's all over the place in fan fiction.
KERR: It doesn't appeal to you?
BUJOLD: Oh, yeah!
KERR: It's difficult to understand our attraction to it.
DEAN: It's sort of instantaneously understood--you go, "Yes, of course." But then you go...
BUJOLD: If you stop and look at it, you'd say "This is really weird." I can't help wondering if there's an element of sublimated hostility on the part of the writers because they bash the heck out of the characters, and they have such a good time doing it.
WREDE: I read an article in which the author's contention was that it was the desire to be taken care of. It was the "You'll be sorry when I'm dead only not quite because I want to be there to watch" kind of thing.
KERR: You talk about gender roles. Much of it is male-male interaction, and it's a chance to see a male character play a caretaker. We should also mention that a lot of this is primarily read by women.
MOREHOUSE: It's written by women, and it's read by women. It's also written by lesbians. There's a humongous group of lesbian slash writers who write male-male slash. That's bizarro! Apparently some people do a lot of research into whether or not some off the things they try to do are physically possible.
KERR: It's what Ellen Kushner calls "girls on boys on boys."
MOREHOUSE: There's a common, sort of odd, undercurrent of women writing about gay men. You did it, and I'm doing it. And Eleanor did it.
KERR: Lois did it, with Ethan of Athos.
DEAN: [Sci-fi writer] Joanna Russ wrote an article about slash way back in the '70s. She says that what you do--what women at least in the 1970s who were writing this stuff were doing--by having two male characters is, you level the playing field. These people are equals. They have the same social status. The same cultural status. And so you can work out a relationship that is free of the inborn hierarchical distinction made between men and women. She didn't really address why nobody wrote about two women. Possibly it was because in its origin it was fan fiction, and there were very few women in Star Trek, and they weren't the cool ones.
CP: All of you do unexpected things with romance--for instance, Caroline sneakily sticks her hunky love interest into the body of a fat old king, in College of Magics. Why is it important to have romance be a part of your writing?
ARNASON: It's an important human emotion, or drive. It probably became more important in science fiction after women started coming into the field in large numbers. In early science fiction, the emotional age of all the characters is about 14. They're really kind of pre-sexual. Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness seems to me totally charged with sexual tension. I write a lot about romances that don't quite come off. I'm reading the Princess Meredith series by Laurel Hamilton, who writes the Anita Blake vampire murder-mystery series. I'm on the third book. The first 200 pages are sex. Nothing else. I tend to think books are more erotic if you have the possibility of sex that doesn't...where the consummation is not central to the story.
MOREHOUSE: I'm actually a big romance fan. I buy those paperbacks, and I read the whole damn thing, and I enjoy it.
WREDE: What's that saying, "Trashy literature is about sex and violence; great literature is about love and death."
BUJOLD: Shakespeare has romances in all his plays! Some of them come to really bad ends, but they're always in there.
KERR: It's taking on a new role. When you are in a romance, you are confronting the Other and finding your affinity, your connections with them, and that changes you. That leads to the change that makes a character so interesting. And it's fun to write!
MOREHOUSE: Yeah, skip all the other stuff. It's just fun.
CP: So many of your books compress all this wildly raw romantic emotion into really articulate but sort of polite and reserved conversation.
MOREHOUSE: [Whispering] She's talking about fandom....
BUJOLD: Drama is more powerful than melodrama. That element of restraint gives it a focus, a power, that you can't have if you're just emoting all over the map.
STEVEMER: The big fear is being unintentionally funny.
BUJOLD: That too!
WREDE: Yeah. The reserve in my books comes largely from a deep-seated terror of committing purple prose.
ARNASON: Pamela, Pat, Lois, and Peg have all been in different writing groups together. In their cases, how they write dialogue might have something to do with learning from each other.
MOREHOUSE: I actually think it's part of our culture, if we have such a thing. I think lots of us who grew up as science fiction/fantasy readers are culturally sort of intellectuals. We have a lot of distance with roiling emotions underneath. How else could you read science fiction as a teenager? It comes naturally--reserve perhaps even filtered through intellectual debate. I was raised Unitarian, so for godsakes!
DEAN: Yes, me too!
MOREHOUSE: I have major arguments and I tell people "Wow, that was a religious experience."
KERR: I think for me part of it is that through sheer dumb luck I started keeping a journal from a very early age. So I was always an observer of my own life, as well as a participant.
MOREHOUSE: Maybe it's part of growing up as a clumsy, nerdy kid too. When I started talking, I was always putting myself at risk. Because I might say something stupid, I might just be mocked because I was the nerd of the class, or I might say something too smart. I became really aware of communication as a really intense form of human interaction.
KERR: I have a hunch that everybody around this table went through their young adulthood feeling they were a bit smarter than a lot of people around them--
MOREHOUSE: --or at least weirder!
BUJOLD: With supporting evidence!
WREDE: I don't understand real people at all well. I understand fictional people a lot better. On paper, I can make it work.
BUJOLD: Also, one of the things I like as a writer is that it's very redemptive. You can take all your mistakes and turn them into something useful. No matter how painful the experience, it can be redeemed by being transformed and put into your next book.
WREDE: But this question assumes that writing is a whole lot more conscious and deliberate than it actually is. It's like roller-skating or riding a bicycle. You're not consciously adjusting every minute. You're worried about moving forward and staying in balance.
MOREHOUSE: And I'm still learning to ride my bicycle. When you're first starting off, believe me, you're wondering if the training wheels are coming off.
WREDE: Don't look back!
CP: I find it fascinating how often the urge to merge in your books is nearly a group effort: much input, positive and negative, from other characters who are as important as the love interest. Why not just one fine romance with hero and heroine?
WREDE: There are two levels that everybody works on, the personal and the societal. You can't just leave one out unless you're going to do one of those lone-spaceman-exploring-far-planets books, which is not what we write. If you're going to write about relationship, you've got to write about all the relationships.
KERR: I think that all of us have an allergy to either/or thinking. We don't feel like you've found your romantic partner--boom!--you're done with your relational work for the rest of your life.
CP: Eleanor has talked about how Jesse Helms and the NEA controversies inspired her to write Ring of Swords. Do political situations provide fodder to you?
MOREHOUSE: They're my lifeblood!
ARNASON: That's what science fiction is about for me, it's politics. I write about war, I write about sexual prejudice, I write about race prejudice. It's all ultimately about contemporary society. I don't think you can write anything serious in the United States if you're not dealing with class and race. I would probably argue that the problem that feminist science fiction faces right now is that in order to continue growing it has to deal with racism and class prejudice. So far that hasn't happened in a really strong way.
WREDE: Everything is material. I don't think I've ever specifically gotten something from a political situation, but that says nothing really about anything.
BUJOLD: The political situation may not be current. All of us are history readers. I know that the My Lai massacre is at the root of several incidents in my books.
KERR: My second novel is certainly concerned with political concerns. I was comparing the witchcraft trials of New England with the current AIDS crisis, and showing how the roots of Puritan thinking about relationships, about sexuality, about religion, affected us in our current struggle to deal with this overwhelming health problem.
STEVEMER: I've always been interested in things that would permit me to escape from wherever I was, mentally, so the urge to write fantasy is probably a reaction. It's probably related to the reason why I don't write about what I know. As we're always told we should.
BUJOLD: By people who don't write.
KERR: But I would deny it if anyone said you're writing fantasy because you're looking for escapism. Emma Bull wrote that "fantasy is usefully subversive." Because it makes you examine things in a different way by getting around people's defenses.
MOREHOUSE: "It's an alien!"
KERR: We're talking about the Other. And that's an up-front concern for us right now. It's not escaping to examine our relation with the Other.
WREDE: The whole fantasy thing is about metaphor. In fantasy because you can make magic real--and magic is not a real thing...
STEVEMER: ...says you.
WREDE: --you can make magic work however you want. Therefore it can mean whatever you want. For me magic is a metaphor for power. In real life, you'd have to look at political power, the power of money, or charisma and personality. But in fantasy I can distill all that and say, "Here's pure power, what do you do with it?"
MOREHOUSE: That's really interesting, because when you talk about politics and money, that is exactly what I chose to write about.
WREDE: But I want to write about the underlying thing that gives them juice.
ARNASON: David Hartwell distinguishes science fiction and fantasy by saying that fantasy is conservative and pastoral and science fiction is progressive and urban. I think there's an argument for that. There's some very good fantasy. But any fiction that is sentimental about the Middle Ages has got some problems for me. You tend to be sentimental about a rigidly hierarchical class system, which has a whole bunch of peasants at the bottom, and that kinda ticks me off. I don't identify with aristocrats very much.
STEVEMER: People can argue about the conservatism side of things. I suppose you get the wrong idea because there are lords and ladies and people with social position and all that. I do think that it's more honored in the breach than in the observance--that where you get the interesting stuff is where it transcends that. I'd hate to be pigeonholed as the kind of person who only writes stories with people with titles in them. Because I really don't like them all that well myself.
WREDE: It's whether the titles are the important part or not.
STEVEMER: Well...whole panels have been done on working-class fiction and characters in fiction, and I'd much rather be on that side of the fence. I just end up over in this area with teapots and teacups. It's a kind of nostalgia that has to do with revising things. I want to go back and have a do-over.
WREDE: Saying that fantasy is conservative ignores all the egalitarianism that has been superimposed on this originally very medieval structure. In most modern [written] fantasies, you have women in the army, women doing all kinds of things that were very rare in real life.
MOREHOUSE: If I had not come across fantasy when I did, I think I'd be a very different person. Because it opened up worlds to me that were in fact very forward-thinking, very progressive--and not just in science fiction, but also in fantasy. Places that I would not have taken myself that were not "conservative" in the "put-down" sense. Whether it is a "conservation" of ideals of loyalty, the good parts of chivalry--that's not necessarily a bad thing. Those things I think we yearn for today, because they're missing.
ARNASON: I'm thinking now that we probably need to be writing in a serious fashion about the future, because we may be living at a point where everything is genuinely breaking down. And if that is so, we need to know where we want to go from here. We're basically living in a half-dozen different science fiction disaster novels right now. Maybe this is a good grim place to end. A lot of these crises, [according to] the predictions I'm seeing, are going to peak or crest in my lifetime. As I've aged, the thing I find most discouraging is that I won't be around to see how the 21st century ends. But there is stuff, huge stuff, that is probably going to happen in the next 20 years. So I'm trying to learn to take better care of myself so that I can be around to see it.