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Interview with Julie E. Czerneda
Here is our complete interview with Julie E. Czerneda. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 6.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: We thought we'd start by telling people how to pronounce your last name.
JEC: It's cher-NAY-da.
CD: You wrote science textbooks for several years. What made you decide that now was the time to break into SF?
JEC: I had always been writing SF for myself. I'd been doing that for years and years, before I'd written any nonfiction science. And it was my nonfiction science publisher who said: what are you doing with stuff in your drawer? You're an author, you should send these things out. And I said: absolutely not. But finally I got up my courage and did send it out, and haven't looked back.
CD: Can you compare the two: what's good and bad about writing science versus what's good and bad about writing SF?
JEC: There's nothing bad about writing fiction. With the exception that I find it very involving, so the kids might starve if I'm in the middle of writing fiction, whereas if I'm writing nonfiction that's not a problem. The thing I like about writing science is that it gives me a really good reason for keeping up my science research and thinking skills -- that's a whole part of my life that I would never want to leave behind. And in SF, whatever's really quirky or neat about science I get to use that -- so they overlap nicely that way. I would say if I knew I was getting up in the morning to write fiction I'd be up before the alarm clock, and nonfiction is more like work. Part of that too is that the science is very prescribed -- it's written to meet curriculum or it's written to deliver a particular bit of information. And with the fiction, it's to play.
CD: Can you tell us how No Limits came about, and what were your goals with that project?
JEC: As I was waiting to sell my first novel -- it took about 10 years to do the whole process of sending it out and having people read it and come back to me -- I began to do workshops in schools on how to read science critically, how to evaluate information. And it just seemed natural to drop SF into that because the kids would pay attention. If they were told to analyze a Discover magazine article, they wouldn't be interested. If they were reading a SF story they got all excited, and then when I gave them the Discover magazine article they had a whole different attitude. All of a sudden they were thinking about the person who wrote it, and the craft of writing it, and what was going on behind the scenes.
Time after time, I'd have a teacher say: could you give us some worksheets, or is there anything in print? The other thing was: give us a list of stories we can use. And I tried, but the school libraries would have Foundation, Dune... So I thought there's obviously a need for something. Meanwhile I'd been churning out by this point 30 or 40 textbooks and other books, so I knew the publishing industry. When it looked as though it was going to be yet another encouraging wait for A Thousand Words for Stranger to be bought by someone, I thought, here's a project I can get going. I went to my publisher and said this is what I'd like to do, and they said we have no idea what that is, but do it.
So they gave me carte blanche: do what you have to do, make it work. I was happily becoming an anthology editor, having never done anything like this before, totally innocent of the fact that I shouldn't just phone people and say: can you give me a story for this? But it worked out very well. I was busy working on this, and all of a sudden I sold Thousand. And I sold a short story, and I sold another novel, and another one, and it just all of a sudden happened -- it seems all at once, but it actually was a long time in the making.
CD: How did you like editing?
JEC: When I was editing the anthology that goes with No Limits, I was awestruck that I could even get these people to respond to me in the first place. It was the second and third conversations with these people that I'd ever had and I was a fan of their work. It wasn't a case of some editor on high deciding to allow these people to submit -- I was prepared to grovel. And I didn't have to, I just said: I want some short stories custom written to suit science classes, and if I gave you an idea of the curriculum can you give me a story? And they were jumping through the phone. Charles Sheffield wrote his story the next day. And I just went, whoa, this is amazing.
Editing... partly because I was in awe of these people, but also because they were such professionals, there wasn't anything to fix. It had to go through review because it was meant to be used in classrooms; it had to go to teachers and students to read. That being the case, some of the terminology Rob [Sawyer] had used wasn't suitable for that grade that the stories would most likely be used in, so with his permission I pulled some of the terminology out and it's in the teacher's book, No Limits, as annotations. That was probably the only thing I ended up changing.
CD: How do you like writing short stories compared to novels?
JEC: Short stories I'm finding very interesting. I never planned to write any -- I always liked the novel format, I could just go someplace and stay there. Then I got challenged to write a short story for a contest, and so the very first short story I wrote is the one in Packing Fraction, it's called "Prospect Park." I was challenged to write it for Toronto Trek's first writing contest. I'm very critical of short stories -- I'll rewrite every paragraph, I'll dust them and polish them, and always seem to write a bit more and cut them severely. I work at them a lot. I tend to do things in them that I wouldn't do in a novel. For example, I can be very dark in a short story, and I don't want to be there for the length of time I'm involved with the characters in a novel.
I've got several sitting in a drawer now -- I just write them whenever an idea bugs me. I don't write them so much because I'm planning to send them out. If someone asks me for a short story, I may have one or I may not. I was invited to submit a short story for Battle Magic, which was a fantasy anthology, and I thought: OK, I've never written a word of fantasy in my life, and I love fantasy, so I'll give it a try. And I was so worried, I had all kinds of people read it to see if it sounded like fantasy rather than SF. But the editors liked the story and they bought it. I probably have more ideas for short stories than I'll have time to write in the next while, but that's OK.
CD: Are there any particular writers that you consider major influences on your writing?
JEC: I'm not sure if they're influences, or if they're just people that when I read their work I just sit there and say: thank you for being here. I love Patricia McKillip's work, C. J. Cherryh's work. I grew up with loving and reading Burroughs and Andre Norton and John Creasey and an eclectic mix of people who knew how to put words and characters together in a way that pleased me. As far as influence goes, probably Andre Norton influenced me in the sense that her stories were always character-driven, but they were always wonderful places to be. They were both there. A lot of writers will do fabulous settings and panoramas and civilizations, but there's no people there to actually want to visit.
I received a wonderful compliment from somebody by email after Thousand came out. They said that they'd love to take the main character to lunch.
CD: What are some good books you've read lately?
JEC: I'm really enjoying C. J. Cherryh's Fortress series, although I know when I pick each new book up it's not the end of it. I wish I'd discovered it when it was all done, so I could read them together. But I understand more now about what it's like... I read Vonda McIntyre's The Moon and the Sun and enjoyed that.
When I'm really busy, I tend to visit old friends. I just finished rereading the Witch World series, as my anything-but-technology mode for the day.
CD: What do you think of SF on television?
JEC: I am not a person who finds fault. I will go as far as I can with whoever's presenting it to try and enjoy it. There's a lot that I really like. I love Voyager, they're having fun, they're in a ship, they're going places -- that's what I like about Star Trek. I still enjoy Deep Space Nine, although I get impatient when the shows are very inward and they deal with the same people, because I want SF to take me someplace where I haven't been. There's a lot of darker stuff on like First Wave and even Babylon 5 to some extent, but Babylon 5 redeems itself just by the quality of the characters and there is a lot of wonder going on, but it is very dark, a lot of it. I don't want to be in those places all that much. I'm an X-Files person, but not a Millenium person. You'll probably never come out of one of my books going: yuck -- at least I hope not.
CD: Why did you write both of your first two novels in the first person?
JEC: Because I started writing for fun, it made sense that it was my adventure so it was going to be in the first person. And I liked reading the first person, so that's how Thousand got started. And I didn't know at that point that you weren't supposed to write in the first person. So nobody corrected me, but they bought the book. The person who was the protagonist had to be someone who didn't know what was going on and yet was the pivotal point of the plot because that was the only way it made sense to me to tell the story. And that's much the same thing that happened in Beholder's Eye, plus she was such a fun character to be as I wrote.
The book I'm working on, In the Company of Others, is not going to be in first person. The short stories I haven't written in first person, and I've had a male protagonist in two or three of them. It's not something I'm fixed on, it just happened to be that way.
CD: When you were writing Beholder's Eye, were you worried that shapeshifting had been done before?
JEC: Well, it hadn't been done before when I started the book... I started a whole bunch of ideas, I've got about 13 or 14 books I've been working on for endless amounts of time, just throwing things in the envelope whenever. The main character in Beholder, and the finale of it, I'd written quite a long time ago and then put aside as a book I did want to write. So when Deep Space Nine came on with a shapeshifter I had about 10 seconds of "oh, well look at that" and then I realized that it wasn't at all the shapeshifter that I would write. And she's a shapeshifter because of other things: that wasn't my purpose in writing the book to make a shapeshifter, it just turned out that once you're immortal and can change your cells, why would you stay in one shape all the time?
Since then, I've had email, for example, about the force blade: it's a concealable, dangerous sort of weapon that's used in Thousand. One person wrote me and said: couldn't you have done anything original? Lucas came out with this years ago. And I felt like writing back and saying: well, if you want I'll show you where I wrote it 10 years before the movie came out. And Andre Norton wrote it before I did. It's just a neat idea. As far as worrying about ideas and where they come from, and has it been done before, I didn't actually.
CD: When you were writing A Thousand Words for Stranger, were you thinking about a sequel?
JEC: There were two separate times when I was writing Thousand. There was one point when it was never going to end, and it was just an ongoing pleasure. And then I was writing it when I thought I might let someone else read it, so I better wrap up. That was more serious writing. But even when I started getting near the end, in no way was I planning a sequel. I had all kinds of other ideas, I'd done this one. I wanted to write Beholder's Eye, I had all kinds of things I wanted to explore in other books.
So Thousand was sitting at a publisher and I'd been getting some really hopeful noises from them, and I felt like I was an almost-published author. I was on this panel and someone asked about sequels and he was prattling on about how everything had to be a series and if you couldn't promise 10 books about a character then what good were you? Somebody nudged me from the side, and I wrote in the margin of my notebook, what could happen after Destiny? Of course, that doomed me right there and then, because I looked at it and said: oh, I could do something. But I hadn't started writing it. DAW, once they bought Thousand, they wanted a sequel, and I who had spent about the past seven years preparing myself to handle these kinds of things from publishers said: well, I actually have something else. Because I was firmly told that it was much better to show you could do more than one thing than to get locked into a series.
So they were delighted with this, and then they said: but now can we have a sequel? And I said: it just so happens that I have a concept. Partly that's because there was a bigger story that I was leaving alone because I was concentrating on the main characters. Ties of Power has the same characters, just a very short time after the ending of the first book. Sira's basically thrown this huge rock into civilization -- and she knows it -- and gone off to play, so what's happened in the ripples, that's where Ties of Power begins. It was great fun. All the things I knew now with two books out I could fix, in terms of what I hadn't given in backstory and that sort of thing.
And with Beholder's Eye, DAW said: can we have another book with this character, we just love this character. And I said: oh, I can imagine that there's lots of trouble ahead. Ties of Power is off in production now, so I'm writing Changing Vision, which is the next book about Esen -- it's not so much a sequel, as another whole set of problems.
CD: What about In the Company of Others? Does it go with either one of your already-created worlds?
JEC: No, it's another new one. It's a little bit darker future, it's before humans have made contact with aliens. I wanted to explore what would happen if they'd gone into terraforming in a big way, and then they brought with them a pest and they contaminated all this. They spent the effort to terraform worlds, they got colonists all set up ready to go, and the worlds were contaminated. And what could they do about this contamination? I wrote the first chapter, and it was something I used at a workshop with Michael Jan Friedman years and years ago, and he really liked it, so that was encouraging. It's a stand-alone; it won't have anything else with it.
One of the nice things about having multiple projects underway is that you can write what you feel like at the time. Esen is a fun character, she bumbles around the universe and she's pretty invulnerable but she's going to have a great time getting into so much trouble. So she's my light-hearted, fun-loving character; even if she's in bad situations it's still never dark where she is. In the Company of Others is going to be a bit grittier future, a bit more effort required to survive it.
CD: What do you do when you're not writing?
JEC: I paint, there's camping when I get a chance... I do still write non-fiction. I didn't write any for a year or so, but there's been such a big change in Ontario in science programs that I couldn't say no to some of the interesting projects. So I'm doing a little bit of science writing as well. I go to a lot of conventions, do a lot of workshops, and book signings and things like that. I like going out and meeting people, especially now that they walk up to me with my book, as opposed to: who are you and where's the washroom?
CD: Are there any particular themes you'd like to explore in further books?
JEC: Biological themes interest me a lot. There's a big concept I want to approach, which is: if you look at ecosystems on Earth and consider the different parts of them, what are galactic-sized ecosystems like? Do they exist, and what would they be like? How do civilizations with different biological natures interact with one another? There's so much more to explore with biology. As long as people let me have faster-than-light travel, I'm fine.
Some readers who have read one of the books or the other email me, and they've got things they're asking -- it's fun to be able to answer those questions, I really do like that. So in the sequel to Thousand, I'm answering some specific things that people brought up. Also there's been interest in characters that I myself paid little attention to -- I liked them at the time but didn't think anything of it -- and for some reason they've resonated with someone or more than one person, and they're really keen about this character. So while I don't plan scads of books in either one of those universes, there's lots of places I could go if I wanted to do something else. So there's no lack of ideas -- just time.
CD: Is being a SF writer what you thought it would be like?
JEC: Oh, it's much better. If I'd known it was going to be this good, this much fun, this much interaction with interesting people -- I think a lot of writers don't appreciate that when they're starting out, that writing is such a social activity. And once you've finished a book and it goes out and it's in someone else's hands, it's their book -- it's not your book only anymore. They'll tell you their opinion of it, they'll have things that they imagine from it, strange and unusual things -- but that's OK. If I'd known I'd be able to meet people... I met C. J. Cherryh this summer -- I could hardly talk, but I actually got to meet her. Things like this happen in the SF community that I had no idea. I went to my first convention in 1989, and I found out to my horror that these wonderful things had been happening all along and I hadn't even thought about it until I started trying to sell the book.
You hear people talking about how they started writing when they were in their teens -- I was writing when I was in my teens, but never thought I could do anything with what I wrote. I probably could have. That being said, all the things I've done while I was waiting have added to my abilities to write. I certainly have a great deal of discipline, having written full time for ten years before I even did this.
CD: SF talks a lot about technological change. What do you think will be the biggest social change in the next 20-30 years?
JEC: I think it's going to be coming in human biology, I think it's going to be related to the fact that they will give us the ability to have far more control over our health, of what happens to us medically, what's available to people medically. The ability we will have to affect other life is going to grow by leaps and bounds. And I think, much like computers, it's going to be something that almost everybody will eventually take for granted and use -- not necessarily knowing how or why they're using it. Just like people will buy a prescription and not really know the mechanism of the drug -- or even care or need to know -- to take it. Biological options are open to us that we assume we can use without realizing 20 years ago we couldn't do those things.
Perhaps people won't notice it, but it'll be as profound as any major technological change we've ever had. Even the kinds of foods, and where it's grown -- the farm won't be the same way the farm is now. That's one of the reasons why it's fun to play with biology in the stories. There's a short story I'm working on now in which all the building blocks of food -- the amino acids, nucleic acids, all those kinds of components -- are shipped by pipeline, and different parts of the world specialize in producing different parts. And it's all underground, people don't even notice it. Different food processing plants just tap into the pipeline that they want without any thought of what's happening -- what happens if these pipelines get contaminated. The idea concerns being that removed from what really happens when things go out and eat each other.
CD: What's your view of UFOs?
JEC: You're talking to a person who goes out and looks up at the stars every night and gives a wave, just in case... I worked in government for a while, and I find it very difficult to believe anything in the way of conspiracy theories, just because it's so difficult to get anything done, even for the best well-meaning people, it's a very cumbersome place. And so many different records are tracked and so on. I don't find it credible that they visited us and the government's keeping it a secret.
I would find it appalling to think that we were the only speck of life in this immense universe, and as a biologist I find it a ridiculous assumption. Because there's life 10 kilometres underground in rock, why can't it live anywhere else? So I'm just waiting for Europa to turn out to have all kinds of bugglies on it. I'm romantic enough to hope that one day we'll get to communicate with it because I really dislike it when physicists tell me I can't do something.
CD: What's SF good for?
JEC: If you sit in a chair all day, and then you have to get up and run some place, you're not going to go very far. And if you think around the everyday and what's around you all the time, in very ordinary and predictable patterns, when something really new and startling happens your mind just isn't going to be able to handle it. To me, SF is exercise for the brain. It's imagination, it's being allowed to escape the it's-going-to-happen-anyway attitude, and go somewhere else. What's it good for? It's a survival trait.
CD: What do you think of the term "speculative fiction" versus "science fiction"?
JEC: I use both. I like to think that there's a spectrum of what science fiction is. There's the one end of it, which is Star Wars in which basically anything goes -- and that's fine. It's great storytelling, there's lots going on there that's worthwhile and enjoyable. The other end is basically one person looking into the future and trying to design the way things would work. That satisfies a lot of people -- they really want to know the way the door will work on a Martian colony, and the physics that will let us go somewhere, and sleeper ships, and all that sort of thing. And that's fine too. I find that too dry and the other too fluffy. I like to think of myself as a middle-of-the-road person.
I'll let you know what I'm going to be wild and crazy about, and everything else I'm going to try and be really tight in my science. So my biology I try to keep really tight. My ships go faster than light -- live with it. I'm sorry, that's what I want. That's your leap -- you come with me or you stay behind.
As far as speculative fiction as a label that embraces all of that, that's fine. If bookstores used that, that'd make me happy too. As far as trying to say that science fiction is only at that one end, I would object to that because I think that there's so much that's valid -- you're throwing the baby out with the wash water if you're too restrictive. I do like to see clear distinctions between fantasy and SF, because I like to know where I'm going. Lately a lot of bookstores have been putting them together, because a lot of authors write both.
If there's any type of science fiction that I don't enjoy reading -- I've read enough post-apocalyptic things in my lifetime, starting with Wyndham and onward, that to me it's not a new theme and I'm not that interested in going there even if wonderful people write them... Although I did write a story where somebody thought they were the last person on Earth.
CD: How do think our society views SF?
JEC: There are several types of bias against SF. When I go into a classroom of students, there's that desperate desire to not seem weird -- or to be weird and make sure everybody knows it. Anything that's off the beaten track -- kids aren't necessarily going to open up and say that they want to do it. So you get the ones that passionately acknowledge that they read and write SF, and the ones that would but don't want anyone else to know.
There's bias from people whose avenue into SF is television. They can't imagine reading that sort of thing, because to them it's the special effects. They can't make that leap: if you can read about a Gothic situation in England, why can't you read about Mars? The author should be able to paint that picture for you.
One thing I've noticed is that SF is not "literature" in Canada. I've been involved a little bit with Canadian literary people, and it's one step up from a kid's book as opposed to being taken seriously as a novelist. I don't care if anyone ever takes me seriously as a novelist, because I don't read those books. SF doesn't seem to have a place yet -- "I wrote a book!" "What's it about?" "Science fiction." "Oh, when are you going to write a real book?" I have no patience with that. There's also people who think that SF is either for kids, or it has an evil purpose. It depends on where you are.
Some of my neighbours who had never read SF said they had to read it because it was my book. I said: you don't have to read it. They said: oh yes, we've got to know all about you. They read it and they forgot about trying to find out about me, and actually enjoyed the book -- so that was great. I find that I forget about the readers while I'm writing -- but after I've sent it off, I enjoy their reactions.
CD: Any movie options?
JEC: I never thought about any of them being made into movies, although I've since heard from many authors that they'll option almost anything. I did write a lot of screenplays for fun, and had a couple picked up by an agent -- of course, I was always good at picking the shows that were going to be cancelled. So I'd get these phone calls: gee, I wish I'd had your script six months ago, we got cancelled. Writing for television and film is something that I've got some experience in, but I don't write that way in the novels. Michael Crichton, you can almost see him blocking scenes. I don't think that way as I'm writing. I wouldn't want to send A Thousand Words for Stranger out to be optioned, because so much happens in the sequel, Ties of Power. They probably would condense them both and just go for the highlights, as opposed to using either book as source for the screenplay. In the Company of Others could be a movie -- I'm not writing it with that in mind, but it's a very whole, compact, tight story.
CD: Is there anything else you'd like to tell your readers?
JEC: I'd like to thank them -- I think it's wonderful how many people took a chance on an author whose name they couldn't pronounce. And liked it so much. Because I would have been happy if Thousand had just sat up there and not have anybody mad at it. Because I knew by the time I had finished it and sold it -- before it came out, I'd already pretty well written Beholder's Eye -- so I knew I was better. I can see in Thousand all the parts I wrote way back and I tried to fix, so from that point of view I was hoping that it would keep quiet and nobody would say: what an awful writer, what a juvenile style. And yet people enjoyed it, they thought it was great, they got the story and they didn't pay a great deal of attention to anything uneven about it, which is very kind.
Last modified: April 5, 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Julie E. Czerneda