Lois McMaster Bujold is a Science Fiction and Fantasy author, with several series in both genres. Her most recognizable work is her science fiction series, The Vorkosigan Saga, featuring the intrepid genius Miles Vorkosigan and his extended family. Bujold’s characters are complex and interesting, and her series remain relevant even years after publication. (Due to the length of the interview, half will be posted today and half tomorrow, 02/09/10)
Q1: What draws you to speculative fiction?
LMB: I’ve been reading the stuff since I was nine years old, and found the magazines and books my engineering professor father left lying around — he used to buy SF to read on the plane during consulting trips. I of course read the children’s versions found in my school library, when I ran out of horse stories — I find I’m by no means the only SF writer of my generation with fond memories of Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet — but my dad’s discards were the first fiction aimed at adults that I’d read.
What drew me was the adventure and the humor I occasionally found. One of the earliest hits for me was Eric Frank Russell’s Men, Martians, and Machines, which had it all, and L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s The Incomplete Enchanter on the fantasy side. (Which actually inspired me at age 15 to read Spenser’s entire epic poem The Faerie Queene, although probably not in the mode Spenser’d had in mind. But no writer can imagine all their readers.) William Tenn and Robert Sheckley, I dimly recall, also had occasional humorous short stories. James Schmitz’s The Witches of Karres — I own a Chilton first printing, bought new. I first encountered Bradbury about then, too. I don’t note him for humor, but he did have some upbeat tales like “A Medicine for Melancholy” that kept me coming back. When I had a subscription to Analog Magazine back in the 60s, I would always open it up and read the stories illustrated by Kelly Freas first, in the hopes that they would be funny. Randall Garrett was always a good bet. Adventure was offered by too many writers to name, but then as now, smart humor was thin on the ground
My current favorite fantasy writer is Terry Pratchett, so my hunger for humor seems not to have shifted much over the decades.
Q2: What was the first piece you ever had published?
LMB: My first professional sale was a short story, “Barter”, which appeared in the now-long-defunct Twilight Zone Magazine in 1985.
Curiously enough, it was a little comedy.
Q3: What did it feel like?
LMB: Like being lifted by a rescue helicopter. I’d been circulating a few short stories while working on my first novels, and had collected several rejection slips, experiencing the agonizing waits for same. About four months after I’d sent the tale in and had despaired of it, the acceptance appeared as a little blue Twilight Zone letterhead post card, with a typed message from editor T.E.D. Klein on the back, fallen down to the bottom of my front porch post box. I still have the card, somewhere. (A quick look in my filing cabinet just unearthed the original contract, which was for $250 and dated September 1984; the story was published in the spring of 1985.)
I was wildly excited, and ran upstairs to show it to my then-husband, who was perhaps less excited to be woken up. (He, and I, did a lot of shift work back in the day.) Validation from actual grown-ups! In New York City! The boost to my morale was enough to keep me writing through the end of The Warrior’s Apprentice and all of Ethan of Athos, at which point my second professional sale was three completed novels to Baen Books.
Now, that was a day — mid-October, 1985. That news came as a phone call from Jim, about whom I knew absolutely nothing at the time; my reaction was a weird amalgam of total elation (and relief) undercut by newbie-writer paranoia. I eventually learned enough to get over the paranoia, but it took some time.
Q4: What was the defining moment that made you say “Yes, I’m a writer”?
LMB: I’m not sure there was one defining moment; more a succession of steps. Finishing the early short stories, finishing the first novel, finishing something in my life for a change. (I had many false starts.) Encouragement from friends. The professional sales were what first allowed me to say “I’m a writer” out loud in front of people, though. At that point, I had proof, not just a dodgy and time-consuming hobby.
Q5: How long have you been writing? What keeps you writing?
LMB: The two short answers, in order, are: Since third grade, and Need for income.
To expand a little, I really started trying to write in junior high school, and kept trying through early college. (The results were fragmentary.) I was then distracted for a decade by marriage, work, and eventually children, and did not come back to those aspirations till my early 30s. At that point, it was time to railroad, as the old turn of phrase has it.
Once my career was finally up and running, it provided a lot of positive reinforcement: income, an adult identity, much-longed-for personal validation, and human attention. SF is both a career and a community.
This line of work also meshes well with both my control-freak and my reclusive proclivities. I am not entirely sure that writing (and reading) fiction isn’t actually a dissociative disorder, which suggests that I will keep on regardless of need for income, or till someone comes up with the right meds.
Q7: What is your favorite speculative fiction work?
LMB: I’m not sure I have a single favorite, but certainly The Lord of the Rings is the work to which I’ve returned most persistently, since I first read it in 1965. The text is the same, but I keep changing, so the reading of it keeps changing. Remarkably durable, that book.
I’ve occasionally thought that if I ever end up taking one of those one-way trips to a hospice, that would be the book I’d want to take along. For one thing, it would be all right if I didn’t get a chance to finish…
Q8: There are 13 books and at least 5 short stories within the Miles Vorkosigan universe. How many more books and/or short stories do you think you’ll write for the series?
LMB: I have no idea. The series structure is open-ended, so there is no final grand climax at which I have ever been aiming. But after a several-book break from the series, I have just completed a new Miles novel for publisher Toni Weisskopf at Baen. (I’ve been working with Toni for almost as long as with the late Jim Baen.) I finished final revisions this past July.
Title is CryoBurn, projected publication date is November 2010, which makes right now a little early to start promoting. It’s an adventure with Miles in mystery-mode, an Imperial Auditor investigation on a planet called Kibou-daini, a new setting, which I hope will help keep readers from totally second-guessing the plot before the book’s even printed. Miles is now 39. The tale is multi-viewpoint, featuring Miles, Armsman Roic, and a local lad named Jin Sato. As usual, what Miles starts out to do and what he ends up doing are only tenuously related.
Q9: Which of the Vorkosigan books or short stories is your personal favorite and why?
LMB: Hm, hard question. Memory, I suppose, because it’s where my on-going central theme of personal identity and how it breaks and grows and changes gets the hardest workout. And it’s all about second chances, which grow increasingly important as one grows older, if only because one has long ago used up all one’s first chances.
And A Civil Campaign, because it’s ornery and a comedy.
Q10 & 11: Because of his body, Miles must rely on brain over brawn, making him almost an anti-hero. What was the inspiration for such a strange main character? Is Miles Vorkosigan based off of anyone in real life?
LMB: Not whole. Like most characters, he’s an amalgam who is forged by the events of his books into an alloy, and becomes himself through his actions (and he’s exceptionally active.)
He actually began as a thing to do to Aral and Cordelia — I first envisioned him back when I was still writing Shards of Honor. I knew their first son and heir would be born damaged, and be smart, short, and difficult. I knew that before I knew his name, or that he would be an only child. With that for a magnetic core, he began to attract other elements. Direct inspirations include T.E. Lawrence, another ambitious soldier who was brilliant, squirrelly, and short, and a physical template from a hospital pharmacist I used to work with back in my 20s, from whom I stole the height, physique, chin tic and leg braces. Miles’s “Great Man’s Son” syndrome comes from my relationship with my own father, who was a professor of engineering of international repute.
Side note: What is the precise definition of the term “anti-hero”, anyway? My old dictionary doesn’t help. But I don’t think Miles is one.
Return tomorrow for the second half of the interview.
For more information about Lois McMaster Bujold and her writing visit her fan-run website, The Bujold Nexus.
You can purchase books from The Vorkosigan Saga and her other series through Amazon, Borders, and Powell’s Books