The latest interview in our Writers of Fantasy series is with Kameron Hurley, author of the Gods War series, The Mirror Empire, and her new book of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution (which is pretty amazing).
We talked about how she develops her cultures in writing, explores gender and sexuality, as well as building characters around stories. She has a lot of experience and is well worth listening to!
I wanted to come up with cultures that I really hadn’t seen explored in other fantasy and science fiction novels. I see so many novels that will take exactly one “big idea” and have that be the only thing that changes in the entire world of the novels, and it feels astonishingly lazy to me. So they’ll throw in faster than light travel, but military and social hierarchies remain the same, people talk the same, live the same, the social mores are the same. And that’s just boring to me.
I read science fiction and fantasy because I want to go places that are really different. If all you’re doing is picking up a piece of tech and throwing it into a status quo version of the world we see on TV every day, I’m just not interested.
What I love most about creating cultures is seeing how each aspect affects every other aspect. So if you have a polyamorous matriarchy, say, there are very different conversations that go on about property inheritance/distribution, and while there’s still plenty of social drama, it’s very different drama, as it’s no longer “I can only choose one man!” it’s “We can all choose each other but now we need to figure out how to get along.”
And when you build a culture based on consent, where no one is allowed to physically touch anyone else without explicit consent, well… let’s just say it changes how you tell the story in huge ways. You have to address things you never even considered before, like is it OK to grab someone out of a burning building without their consent? What’s the punishment for grabbing someone’s hand without asking? And what happens when a consent-based culture has to get along with another culture who has no conception of that?
You get way more interesting stories when you ask these sorts of questions.
I’d argue that gender and sexuality are just as important in any other book you read. It’s just that it’s often invisible because what’s presented on the page lines up with the status quo.
And I’ll say it: the status quo is just lazy writing. Any writer who tells you differently is trying to cover up their conformity.
People notice gender and sexuality more in my books because I don’t stick to expected binary genders and gender roles. In fact, throughout history there have been plenty of societies with multiple genders and far, far, different roles for all those genders than what we see today. People think I’m some kind of fantastic genius to come up with all of this stuff, but there’s a huge historical basis for all of it – my background is in history, and I’ve done my homework. I mean,hell, look around.
There are nonbinary and trans people all around us every day, but most writers don’t put them into their stories, especially Hollywood. Why? For the same reason there are so many white men in starring and speaking roles on film and in other media, even though white men only make up about 30% of the population in America. It’s because those are the people in charge, politically, in our society.
So when you start making new cultures and fantastic cities, you have to sit down andt hink how their power structures would be different from ours. What and who would they tell stories about?
(Related) Is this something the genre as a whole needs to get better at, and have you seen it improving?
I was speaking to another writer who noted that our conceptions of gender are moving so fast even now that pretty soon, much of our literature is going to feel enormously dated, with its two genders and narrow roles for men and women. Trans activism has seen a huge resurgence in recent years, and achieved an incredible amount of visibility. I see the push for equal rights and visibility there to be very similar to what happened in the gay rights movement and same-sex marriage.
While there will always be a place for status-quo stories, the status quo is changing, and there’s an increasingly vocal demand and expectation from readers to see themselves in stories, or to find stories that allow them to consider and question their own preconceptions about gender, about sexuality, about power.
It’s taken a long time for publishers to wake up to this, and it continues to be along slog to both get this work published and to market it in a way that it gets to its intended audience. Is it getting better? Maybe. Is this a permanent thing? Probably, not. I’ve seen too many attempts at progress go ten steps forward and twelve steps back.
When you look back on your first novels, such as The Bel Dame / God’s War Series,and compare it to something more recent, like The Worldbreaker, how do you feel you’ve changed as a writer?Has your process or method changed?
They are very different novels, so this is a tough question. The God’s War books had very simple quest plots because plot is difficult for me. When I moved on to the Worldbreaker books, I wanted to spend more time getting better at plot, which my agent helped me with.
I’d argue that one reason the characters in the God’s War books were so much more vivid than those in the Worldbreaker books is because since there was no plot,I spent the entire time driving the story forward with the characters and their relationships. The Worldbreaker books are bigger books, with a bigger story,and sometimes that story eclipses the individual character stories, which is ashame, to me. That said, there were some people who found the God’s War books unreadable because they had no coherent plot, so YMMV.
I continue to write books that are very different from one another, mainly because I want to challenge myself as a writer. I just finished The Stars Are Legion, a stand-alone space opera that uses first person present tense, which I’d never done before. And, of course, writing The Geek Feminist Revolution, a collection of nonfiction essays, was an entirely different beast.
So many people think that just because you are good at one type of writing that you’ll be good at all types of writing. That just isn’t true. I know a lot of writers who can’t write an article or blog post to save their lives, and vice versa, of course.
How do you usually create your characters, and do you build a story around them, or them around the story?
I tend to start with a character, which always surprises people. Then I ask, “What sort of a world would create this type of person?” and then I flesh out the world and them as I go.
My writing process is basically a process of revision. I go over and over a text,adding layers with every draft. So though I start with a character and build the world, by the time I’ve been over it, layering it, they come together and look organic to one another.
You wrote a lot of short fiction for magazines even before eventually getting your novels published. Looking back on your earlyworks, do you see ideas and themes that you later picked back up in more recent books?
Oh, absolutely. My early work is very clearlyme figuring out what exactly I was interested in and what I wanted to explore.You see some early attempts at writing some brutal women, writing on topicsrelated to colonialization and empire, and plenty of experimentation with epicfantasy.
My epicfantasy stuff was pretty boring in the beginning. I’m thankful every day that I studied the history of revolutionary movements in undergrad and grad school. It helped fuel my interest in writing about war and violence (for better or worse).
Having been a writer for both magazines and book publishers, what do you see as being the big differences in those industries?
Both don’t pay you very much! The biggest differences are mostly in the type of work you’d like to do, and in the fact that with the magazines, you don’t generally have an agent as the go-between if something goes wrong. I had an issue recently where a magazine wanted to run a story of mine before I’d actually seen or signed a contract with them, and I had to get mean about it. I much prefer my agent being the bad guy.
It was time. We’re seeing a big resurgence in the feminist and civil rights movements in this country, and the writing that I’ve been doing the last few years has been a part of that conversation. We knew this was the best moment for a book like this to come out, and so far that has proved true.
And finally, the Worldbreaker saga’s next (and final?) installment comes out next year. What can fans expect?
It does! I actually have two books coming out next year, The Stars Are Legion, which is my standalone space opera, and The Broken Heavens, which is the final book in the Worldbreaker Saga. As for what folks can expect from that one… broken heavens, probably. More blood.Disaster. Betrayal. Maybe even a little hope, too. But you’ll have to read it and find out.