“Alien is a big old puppet show” says Kowal. She talks the Glamourist Histories, theatre and more. Mary Robinette Kowal interview for writers of fantasy.
Mary Robinette Kowal is a multi-award winning author, best known for the Glamourist Histories series, as well as being a professional puppeteer. She talked about her writing process, about puppetree, and how even some of your favourite sci-fi movies, like Alien, are big old puppet shows.
Take a listen here, and there is a breakdown of key quotes below for those who can’t listen right away.
On performing arts, puppetry, and writing;
“It absolutely affects everything I do because I spent twenty plus years in live theatre. It’s very easy for people to think about puppetry and theatre as being two different things. We jokingly call actors who do not use puppets ‘fleshies’ or ‘meat actors’.”
“The thing about puppetry is much like what happens with science fiction and fantasy. People tend to think of it as something other than literature. That it’s somehow ‘lesser’. We’ve all experienced that when we’ve been telling someone what it is that we like to read. So, for me, one of the things that it has done in terms of influencing the way that I write, that I approach fiction, is that my job is to approach an audience. That’s what I did in theatre, that’s what I’m doing as a writer.”
“If there’s an audience where they don’t like the thing that I do, I try to find a gateway. Rather than trying to convince them that ‘oh no, this is really good’ or being embarrassed about it. You know, a lot of people will pre-appologise for what it is that they love… And that gives people permission to laugh at you.
“Whereas, with puppetry, when people say ‘what do you do?’ and if I say it very matter of factly, I’ve found the same thing is true of my writing. And if I present it as ‘this is the thing, they have to accept it at that point as something that grownups do, because I am, in fact, an adult.”
“They usually respond with ‘oh I used to love that when I was a kid’. I ask them what it is that they like now and then suggest something that they might like that is in my field. That is adjacent to what I like. So, for instance, if someone says ‘I used to love puppets when I was a kid, but now horror is really more my thing.’ I say ‘Have you tried Alien? Because, that’s a big old puppet show.'”
“Have you tried Alien? Because, that’s a big old puppet show.”
“In science fiction and fantasy it’s much the same. If someone tells me they are a romance reader, I am not going to immediately suggest that they read Ender’s Game. That would be a bad fit.”
On writing prose
“I am probably most comfortable with the characters and the dialogue. Because that was stock and trade and I had twenty years of training in delivering that and creating different characters. And, also, I minored in theatre, but I was an art major, so I am very visually orientated. The challenge that I face when I am doing descriptions is that I tend to overuse the visual.
“So, what I do after I finish writing, is – I kind of let myself do that – I try to think about ‘what are they hearing, smell and taste?’ while I’m writing. But I will often go back and do a search for ‘look’, ‘saw’, ‘gazed’, those words. And try to replace it with a different piece of body language or physical experience. So that my character is exploring the entirety of their surroundings, rather than fixating on just one thing.”
Writing short fiction and novels
“It comes down to the differences in audience expectations. This is really where you can tell my theatre background. Because I always think about audience first! And what an audience wants out of a short story is different to what one wants out of a novel. In a novel you want immersion. You want to sink into the world, you want it to completely absorb you. Short fiction readers tend to want a swift punch to the gut.”
“It’s like watching the Olympics. You can either say ‘I’m gonna watch the Olympics!’ watch the opening ceremony, the ‘road to the olympics’, watch the training, watch the warm up. If you’re into gymnastics they do the compulsory exercises. Eventually, your favourite comes up and they do their flippy-flippy thing, and you’re like ‘This is amazing!’ and they come up, and you wanna be with them, and their coach comforts them, and wait for the scores… That is watching a novel in many ways. But a short story reader is watching the YouTube clip. They wanna see the clip where it begins right before the flippy-flippy starts, and ends when she sticks the landing.”
“The Flippy Flippy section. I used to work on Lazy Town, and so I picked up ‘Flippy Flippy’ from Robbie Rotten for gymnastics, of all bizarre things.”
On The Glamourist Histories
“The way the magic developed was very much a back-and-forth. The idea that I had was – I’m a big Jane Austen fan, in case you can’t tell – and I had just finished a giant epic fantasy – and I’m also a big fan of giant epic fantasies – and then I was doing a re-read of Persuasion, which is my favourite of Austen’s novels.
“I got to the proposal scene, Captain Wentworth’s letter, and was just weeping all over again, even though I’ve read this multiple times. And what went through my head was ‘why can she do this to me when there is literally nothing at stake in this novel except are these two people gonna hook up?’ And Elliot would have had a perfectly acceptable life – she had other marriage offers on the table – and probably would have been happy, even. She might not have had the same transcendent joy she had with Captain Wentworth, but that’s the only thing at stake.
“Whereas the giant epic fantasy which did not move me in the same ways, the fate of the world is literally at stake. So what went through my head was ‘Why aren’t there intimate family dramas in fantasy?’ And is there something about fantasy that requires you to have an evil overlord? Is there something that prevents you from having the intimate family drama?”
“The instinct I had to put in an evil overlord was so strong. That was very much my fantasy roots speaking – that I was used to reading the evil overlord. But I clearly knew you could have a compelling story without one.”
“I needed magic that made sense that a character in a Jane Austen novel would do, or be involved in. And in her novels, her characters are young women of quality. It could not be something that was a ‘job’, because young women of quality did not do ‘jobs’. That meant it had to be entirely decorative.”
“One of the things that I was doing in ‘Without a Summer’ – which was a lesson that I have learned and used since then in subsequent novels – is that I made sure that all of the characters had a story that was going on that was off stage, that was not part of Jane’s story. So she was intersecting those stories. That was adding complexity to what was going on.”
“There is a significant romance love story that is happening between Melody and her suitor and most of that is off stage. But because it was informing the way that Melody was interacting, because it was giving her life and a backstory and more agency than she had… Pretty much everybody who has read them, they all hate Melody in book one, but in book three they love Melody! You never go inside her head. I think it is because I have given her her own story that is happening off stage and I am giving her enough time onstage that you understand what that story is.
“I think that making sure that characters have their own story is what makes them feel rich and developed.”
“If you have time, getting someone to read your work to you out loud – or even turning on the text-to-speech function on your computer – if there is a wrong way to interpret a line, and you hand it to someone else, they will find it.”
“The thing that I have noticed and am delighted by, is that publishers are actively trying to have a more diverse cast of writers and characters that they’re presenting. Which I love from a reader perspective. I’m getting to read a lot more that is varied in voice and texture, and I love that.”
“It’s also been making me aware of the casting choices that I make in my own fiction. Trying to make sure that I am representing a broad range of experiences and world views in my characters.”
“I don’t want to overlook the fact that there are some writers and publishers that have always been doing this. It is not a sudden thing, ‘oh suddenly this thing has happened!’ It’s been a steady growth. The difference now is that it is being actively raised and vocally celebrated. And some people, and I have very little patience for them, vocally decried.”
“Twitter and social media in general have given people who have been on the margins a voice. One of the things that has happened to writers of colour, to women, to women writers of colour – caught in a really unhappy intersection – is that the media has been, for the most part, predominantly white, straight, cis male authors.
The Cycle of bookselling
“What happens is a spiralling, cyclical effect that goes on when, in the reviews there are five authors. And, say, all five of them are white men, then the booksellers think ‘what books should we buy? Let’s get these, because they got reviews’. And then, someone goes into the bookstore and they’re like ‘Hey, I remember reading a review about that!’ And so they start carrying these books, so they buy those books, and the books by other people are all just kind of trying to compete for attention. With their spine.
“The bookstore is like ‘hey, this author sold better than these other authors!’ Then they’re a New York Times bestseller, and because they have more shelf space, and then they get more reviews because there a new reviewer comes along and says ‘Okay, here’s a stack of people that I need to review, oh I recognise this person, they do good work, I’ll read that one!'”
“This is not anyone sitting down and saying ‘I am only going to promote white male authors’ (except for a very small, unhappy group). This is not a deliberate choice that people are making. This is them being very much influenced by the society and the fabric of society around them. What is happening now is that because of Twitter and because of social media, and because some of the mainstream media is now covering this, is people are now aware of the fact that they have unconscious biases.”
Listen to the full interview HERE
Mary can be found online here
On Twitter @
And on Facebook