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Interview with Candas Jane Dorsey
Here is our complete interview with Candas Jane Dorsey. An abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 10.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: Why did you become a writer? Do you have any advice for people who are starting out now?
CJD: Gracious. That was a long time ago. Because art and music had been taken by my sister and brother, who were older? Because I got attention from the teacher in elementary and junior high school? Because notebooks were portable and private? Because I was (and am) a voracious reader and books were a familiar idiom? There was certainly a drive for creative expression happening from an early age but I could have gone into any of a number of interests -- visual arts, fabric design, music (both as an originator and an interpreter), photography... some I would have been better at than others. (I was also interested in auto mechanics, but I was streamed into academic work in school and just expected to go to university. Still, for many years, until I became too busy, I did a number of my own minor car repairs.) In high school and early university I was originally in theatre, first interested in performing and then in design, stage-management and technical theatre, but realised later that from elementary school I had been writing. I just didn't realise that was a career, I thought it was an extra, so I didn't concentrate on my writing the same way I did on theatre. But I was writing plays for performance while I was still in high school, won competitions a couple of years later, had poems published around the same time -- this was in 1970-71-- and my first short story published (outside of high school) in 1974. (That story, by the way, is included in Vanilla and other stories, an anthology of my mainstream and slipstream short fiction from 1974-1999, which is just out from NeWest Press in Edmonton.) So looking back I can see that I was always very focussed and ambitious about writing, even a bit singleminded, but I didn't see it as clearly as that for many years. I left theatre for child care work, finished my BA in English and Drama while working, worked with teenaged girls for four years, went back to university, took a social work degree, graduated -- and began immediately to work as a freelance writer! That was over 20 years ago and I've more or less earned a living at it ever since.
I think that young writers today are more encouraged to take themselves seriously as writers, and that may save them a lot of time in one sense, because they are able to accept right away that this is an activity -- and a career -- worthy of their respect and self-respect. However, one gets to things in life when one gets to them. I teach a lot of introductory writing classes to new writers of all ages and I tell them that the important thing is to understand and respect their process, and not to discount themselves or their need to write. I was always driven to write, but I had to learn to accept that drive and listen to it. Before I did I wasted a bit of time and a lot of energy.
I also tell them a couple of other important things. One is: writing will not kill you. It may feel like it's going to, but it won't. Smoking, drinking to excess, fast cars, projectile weapons, unprotected sex might kill you. Writing won't.
I also make sure new writers get told that they are unlikely to make any money at this. I remember Judy Merril and I were talking about this once, and she said, "I've come to the conclusion that if you do what you love and must do in the world, the Universe will send you a living. But it's a damned slim living!" Fame and glamour are one thing, money is another. In almost every way I am living now the life I dreamed of having when I was a teenager. I write books that come from my heart, I also write for a living, I travel internationally and know people in many places in the world, I am known as a writer in many places in the world, and I help others get their work out into the world. I've done community development in the writing and arts communities. I live in a comfortable house (I'm part of a housing co-op, which is the only reason I can afford to live in a house) and the walls are covered with art made by friends and strangers. I have a brilliant and wonderful partner, good lovers and friends, a talented and interesting family. I have a reasonable level of health that allows me to do most of what I want. I have 2 cats, I time-share a Pomeranian... but when I was wishing for this happy life, I forgot to wish for financial security or a pension plan! Thirty years ago at fifteen or seventeen, when I was forming my goals and making my desires known to the Universe, I forgot to include those things.
Not that I advise young writers about money, except not to quit their day job unless they know they can stand the financial insecurity. But it would be a good idea for them to learn something about RRSPs and the like. Yes, I tell them to learn to write better, but frankly, we know they are going to learn their trade, if they are driven, so that's already a given. But dying in a garret -- or living in a garret -- should not be necessary.
CD: Black Wine was a very complex and well-written book. How long did it take to write?
CJD: Thanks for the compliment. Given that I was writing Black Wine part-time sometimes, full-time at others, and that I work on several projects at once, it's hard to say exactly how long. Years, certainly. I had been working on and off on another novel, and realised I didn't know enough about writing a novel, so I'd start with something simpler. Thus does the Universe punish us for our presumption in making definite statements. Ever notice that? You say, "I'd never own one of those little lap dogs!" and the next dog you time-share is a Pomeranian? So I figured I'd write a nice simple coming-of-age-quest fantasy and figure out some of the basics of novel-writing, and then one day I was sitting down to write and instead of Essa looking for her mother I found myself typing what later became the opening sentence: "There is a scarred twisted old madwoman in a cage in the courtyard..." and suddenly I was out of "simple" and into some other territory. And some years and sweat and rearrangements later, there was Black Wine.
Sometimes when writers are good at talking about the writing process, it creates the fallacy that we understand it. I would hate to give that impression by indicating in any way that I knew what the final shape of the book would be when I began. I remember that at the time I began the story, I found the passivity and whininess necessary to the protagonist of a simple coming-of-age-quest tale became annoying after a very short while. Anyway, life isn't as simple as those quest novels would have you believe, and I just couldn't let that kind of middle-class story stand. "Oh, I'm so miserable cuz my mommy left home, whine whine" and then she finds her mother and discovers some sort of wish-fulfillment outcome -- boring and improbable and heavily dependent on the myth of the benevolent universe. Or the stableboy-to-king variation with its incredible presumption that there is some kind of natural nobility that will win out against the ordinary loutish lumpenproletariat. So it took me about ten pages of that to get totally fed up and throw in the Tienanmen Square massacre, and from then on things started to get interesting.
I worked as a child care worker with teenaged girls for four years at the beginning of my career, and saw lots of things that challenged my soul, and that experience has never stopped informing the narratives I write. And of course, in addition to the "necessary traumas" -- people dying, getting ill, hurting each other by accident -- the world is also well stocked with people behaving badly to each other and suffering the consequences. So I could not write one of those simple, linear narratives, because I can't see the world that way. But I also see the world redemptively, in the end, so I know when I write that the complicated interaction between entropy and information will always be part of my work. I don't have to plan it to get it there.
Black Wine was initially arranged as three distinct narratives in three sections and it didn't feel finished. Interleafing the chapters and making each part of the story in essence a subplot of each other part was the breakthrough that allowed me to make the most of the potential energy of each segment. Some readers seem to find the slow assembly of the story pieces a challenge, but I actually made some changes to make it easier and I was unwilling to make it too simple. The pace is part of the narrative necessity that this particular story seemed to demand.
Well, every story demands something, and every one is different. Going back to my original goal of learning how to write a novel, what I discovered as I wrote Black Wine and then went back and finished A Paradigm of Earth, which I'm just preparing to deliver to Tor for a summer 2001 pub date, is that one doesn't learn how to write novels, one learns how to write the novel one is writing, and one has to learn a new process for every novel.
I'm not sure this does anything to endear novel writing to me, but I'm just finishing the spit-and-polish on Paradigm and am starting to explore another one, so I guess I'm stuck with them. I am hoping to spend a little more time on short fiction now, though, as I've been too involved in Paradigm and a screenplay I'm writing to have any time for short fiction lately, which I regret as I like short stories very much.
CD: Did Black Wine match your initial vision?
CJD: I have learned over the years never to have a rigid initial vision. It will always be subverted by the requirements of story. I simply enter what John Gardner calls "the fictive dream" and follow the narrative track step by step. I also find that if I know where I'm going with a story, I risk losing interest and have to use all sorts of discipline and tricks to force myself to write the middle and the details.
Black Wine surprised me. But that's a good thing.
CD: Is science fiction a friendly place to talk about gender?
CJD: I suppose it's the friendliest place at present. People probably find it harder to give up ideas about gender than almost any other preconceived notion or prejudice. The idea that we might not inherently have any (gender, that is) is for some people almost unthinkable, shocking, annoying or heretical. Some people live their lives dedicated to the myths of gender, and I don't just mean conservative heterosexuals either. When those myths are challenged, look out for the emotional reaction, the backlash! But of all the places to challenge those myths, speculative fiction and personal essays are probably the friendliest.
Having said that I will say that even those of us who are trying to discuss myths of gender are often foolishly uninventive about it. We are all the captives of our prejudices, our conditioned behaviours, and we make the silliest errors. I have examples in my own work as well as others', but I'm not going to reveal them!
Black Wine won the Tiptree Award, I assume, for its cavalier treatment of gender roles and prejudices, rather than for presenting a world without gender, or even a grammar without gender, as some of my short fiction tries to do. But I was aware of a different mechanism in the book, one that has its ironies. Gender theory has spent a certain amount of time looking at the idea that in a male-dominant gendered society, "male" becomes the transparent or "non-existent" gender, the normative one, and only other genders have solidity -- this being, for instance, why so many people think "gender studies" in scholarship equals "women's studies." I realised after the fact that the reason Black Wine's generations were all of women was to make gender itself transparent so I could look at other forces. So all the generations of Essa's family are women, so that the issues of good and evil, proactivity and passivity, etc., were de-genderised. I'm not sure how readers took that. All the other ways of giving the characters non-normative (with respect to our cultural norms, anyway) gender roles and relationships were to some degree second nature to the story. Although some readers foreground them because of the experience they bring to the book, I was writing them in background.
In general I think there needs to be more "second-nature" use of different psychological and social structures in SF. If we look at the degree to which our society and ourselves in it has changed just in our lifetimes, we realise that societal change is an important factor in extrapolating possible and impossible futures. These far future tales which have in them analogs of our current imperium's culture (the American family dream and ideal neighbourhood of "Leave It To Beaver" in a star system far, far away...) are badly extrapolated and lazy.
CD: Can you tell us more about A Paradigm of Earth and other projects on the go?
CJD: Paradigm of Earth is just getting its final tuneup (it's May 2000 when I'm answering this question) and should be out a year from delivery (summer 2001). It's a first-contact novel about grief, loss, longing, and recovery. I started writing it in the 1980s, realised I didn't know how, and left it until I learned how to write a novel. As I told you, that was what Black Wine was supposed to be -- easier. Just shows that you should never let the Universe hear you say things like that. Then I went back and it seemed comparatively simple. The process has been very different for Paradigm. I've had the outline since the beginning, the armature. It has been throughout a matter of filling in the body of the thing, adding the material onto the armature. Sometimes I find that a struggle. Of course, I added the high points first, and I find some of the background stuff less interesting. But doing the touch-up before delivery, I've re-engaged with the details, in a way, and it has been more fun adding background texture. Which is good, because it made it easier to actually work on it. Starting to write is the most difficult thing for me. Not the writing, but the beginning to write.
I realise I'm talking about how I wrote the book and not why or what it's about. I actually hate interpreting my own text, I realise as I try to apply my mind to it. I prefer people to read the book. I don't like summarising "what happens" either. How do I know I am giving the right impression? To find out what happened, I had to write the book in the first place. Seems only fair that the readers should just read it, and find out with me. I'm discovering this attitude as I explain it to you, so forgive me if it sounds odd...
And as for what I'm trying to do with the book, it's the same thing that all my writing probably tries to do: heal things. Save the world. Shine a loving light on people. It may not seem so given the uncompromising voice I find in some of my work, but I feel I am always writing about redemptiveness. Not in the religious but the human sense.
CD: Many authors aren't interested in editing and publishing. How did you get started in this area?
CJD: Several writers and editors who formed the original Books Collective in 1992, and the group which joined together to buy Tesseract Books in 1994, all believed as I do that there were not enough publishing opportunities in certain areas, and that rather than complaining about this it was up to us to do something. We operate as a writers co-op in many ways, though geography and time availability has made changes over the years in the way the Tesseract editorial group has been able to operate. We don't always do all we would like to, but I think we've made an important contribution. I am proud that I've had as much to do as I have had with the promotion and advancement of speculative fiction publishing and awareness in Canada.
Personally, I believe that writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers are all in different aspects of the same business -- getting literature out to the reader. There is far more overlap than difference in our goals, and we should be talking and working together not setting up barriers. When I hear people saying things like "Oh, editors are always so..." or "Publishers are such..." or "Writers are such a..." it reminds me of the ways that people have to discount others they consider inferior. How many times have you heard "Women / blacks / homosexuals / immigrants / teachers / lawyers / business people are always so..." As SF writers we should know that "the Other," "the alien" is often more like ourselves than we want to believe. And as Canadian SF writers we should from our experience know better than to believe myths of exclusion.
Modern technology allows so many more opportunities for grass-roots national, regional and local publishing. I like to quote James Tiptree Jr's line: "We live in the chinks of your world-machine." The mega-houses-of-cards that are international big-business publishing are going to collapse. The chaos resulting will provide even more opportunities for small independent publishers of quality books and e-books.
CD: How was working with Gerry Truscott on Tesseracts3? How was working with John Clute on Tesseracts8?
CJD: I like working with a co-editor, and these two are two people with wonderfully incisive minds and good judgement. Each comes at the field from a different direction. I think both teams complimented each other. I loved cutting my anthology teeth with Gerry. He's a smart and sensible editor, and as he is also a writer, he understands the need to treat the authors respectfully. We learned a lot. When I edited the Prairie Fire anthology for WorldCon in 1994 I used a lot of the experience I had gained, and a lot of the systems Gerry had taught me for dealing with that volume of material. In that case, Prairie Fire editor Andris Taskans was there if I needed to check out any uncertainties, so I wasn't flying solo, but it did feel different to have the final choices devolve on me without as much consultation. Then, I had seven or eight more years' experience when I worked with John. That might have shortened the process a bit. It was a hoot trying to find time to overlap with him for meetings because of course he lives in London, England and I live in Edmonton, Alberta. So we met at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Florida and then Readercon outside Boston. Each time we had a different stage of the process to resolve, and we were ready to make our decisions. We get on well anyway, and this just reinforced that.
Both books are still available, but Tess8 is easier to get in hardcover, and we have signed copies. Now, back to our regular programming...
CJD: How has Canadian science fiction changed over the years?
CJD: Writers don't feel as much like part of a subset. Those of us who defined "Canadian science fiction" are now seen as the Older Generation, though that process just began something like 13 years ago. It's kind of funny, really. I gave a speech about this part of Canadian SF history at ConCept/Boreal when I was anglophone Canadian Guest of Honour last year. Most of the people were in the other room listening to the Ferengi. True, he was a pretty nice guy, but it's too bad, because those who do not remember their history are doomed to forget it...
Seriously, though, the field has matured in many ways, not the least of which is that the definitions blur and blur and blur again. And Canadians are a favourite flavour in New York now, which wasn't true 15 or 20 years ago for sure. Which a cynic might say has something to do with the fact that Canadian sales are paid at half the percentage and on net royalties, which makes our increased percentage of Canadian sales more lucrative... but that's a side issue -- the real reason is that we have very fine writers in far larger numbers than before. Phyllis Gotlieb doesn't have to feel so lonely any more. But let's remember that A.E. van Vogt was a Canadian... and the first manuscript of speculative fiction -- scientifiction in fact -- was published in Canada in 1888. Canadian SF isn't something that started ten or fifteen years ago. It's been part of our literature all along. We are all part of an ongoing literature.
CD: Could you tell us about the 3-Day Writing Contest?
CJD: The International Three-Day Novel-Writing Contest was initially run by Arsenal Pulp Press of Vancouver, and now has a new sponsor, Anvil Press -- the same people who run SubTerrain magazine. It involves writing a novel over the Labour Day weekend, Friday midnight to Monday midnight, and anyone can sign up. At the time Nora Abercrombie and I entered (1986), many fine writers had won, including bpNichol for a beautiful set-piece called still, but as I recall no women had won, and there had been a lot of a certain kind of writing. I'd just come back from the first SFWorkshop Canada Ink, organised by Judy Merril in Peterborough, Ontario as a result of her work with the writers in the first Tesseracts anthology. I was feeling pretty energised and I told Nora she had to do this with me, it would be good for her writing. As it turned out, it was good for both of us. I found it to be the equivalent of a weekend hands-on workshop in novel writing, I learned an immense amount, and we had a great deal of fun. The tone of the weekend declined day by day. The first day Myrna Kostash (prominent Canadian non-fiction writer) brought us gazpacho and pasta with sauce for our supper meal, the next day my father brought us Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the last day Nora's mom brought lime jello, gum and cider shandy. We worked with our Kaypro computers back-to-back on my dining room table, and split the novel into plot/subplot-backstory. Nora wrote the backstory, and I wrote the main plotline. We each imported one character from other work we were doing. I brought Angel from the beginnings of the story which later became "(Learning About) Machine Sex" and she brought the crusty old grandfather with the "fishing chair." Then we just typed, a chapter each, and compared them, exchanged them for additions and details, printed them out and went on. It was great. We didn't expect to win, and when Hallowe'en, which was the date they'd set to notify winners, came and went, we sighed and thought, "oh well, never mind," but a few days later they called and notified us. It was a hoot. I tell everyone it was a puff-pastry, not to be taken too seriously, but it was written with a couple of intentions in mind. One was that the heroine should win without vigilante violence, and the other was that it would be a feminist text but one which didn't take itself too seriously. Phyllis Gotlieb reviewed it in the Toronto Sun after it was published in 1987, and got both of those points, which was very gratifying. We went on a book tour and radio interviewers who hadn't read it kept asking if it was autobiographical. We'd just look at each other and snort, but we tried to answer the question seriously. Finally we kinda lost our Canadian niceness, and came up with the answer, "It's about a female genius computer hacker who's into drugs and sex. It's not autobiographical -- we know nothing about computers."
CD: "(Learning About) Machine Sex" and Hardwired Angel were written in the same time period. Could you explain the relation between the two?
CJD: I started the first four pages of "(Learning about) Machine Sex" at the Peterborough SFWorkshop Canada Ink in 1986. I had the character a week or two later when we decided to do the Three-Day Novel-Writing Contest, so I used her. The novel was to be after the story. Even then I knew that the story would be angst-ridden and noir, but in the novel, we wanted a happy ending. So the novel had to happen after the story. Still, we really liked the title "Machine Sex" and wanted Pulp Press to use it for the novel, which was initially titled Hardwired. But Wlater Jon Williams came out with a novel named Hardwired just shortly before ours was to come out, so we changed the name. Nora and I wanted them to call it "Machine Sex" and have naked women and computers on the cover and sell it in bus depots as fluff, but some of the people at Pulp Press didn't like the word Machine in the title and some didn't like the word Sex in the title, and so on... when I told this to Gerry Truscott who was editing my book of short fiction, and told him there was a short story of more or less that title, he said, "Great! Finish it, we'll put it in the book, and we'll call it Machine Sex and other stories." And that's what happened.
Hardwired Angel and "(Learning About) Machine Sex" were recently optioned for a movie by producer Gerri Cook of Dinosaur Soup Productions. She has been working on this in one way and another since 1989. We have also looked at a TV series based on the character Angel, but that's another story. Gerri now has development money from A-Channel and has hired me to write a first draft script, which I've been doing. I'm now on about draft six of the first draft. Or maybe draft nine. That's how it goes. I'm learning a lot about the different necessities of screenwriting. It's been interesting. Updating Angel to the twenty-first century has been a challenge too. Every time she pitched the film again, I had to update the computer technology to be futuristic, because fact and fantasy outstripped the speculation in the original a long time ago. By now, it really is "indistinguishable from magic," but I've found that's the key to movie tech. It has to be believable scientific magic.
CD: The stories about Angel talk about technology and its effect on society and the human body. How would you write those stories today?
CJD: I guess part of the answer to the question will be in the movie script. But I also see that I keep rewriting this theme. Look too at "Death of a Dream" in Tesseracts4 edited by Skeet and Toolis. Then there's "Ice" in Tesseracts7 edited by Trudel and Johanson. I don't know if I would write these stories again today, because one moves on in certain of one's preoccupations, but I think that the reason I write science-fictional literature is that I can examine modern concerns and that is one of them. My next novel is going to be called Freak Show and I suspect it will have this as one of its underlying themes, thought it's early days yet to be sure of that. I'm just beginning it.
CD: What's the most outrageous thing that's happened to you as a writer?
CJD: Let's see. Here's an assortment of answers:
On the strength of the name of the short story collection Machine Sex and other stories I received obscene phone calls and was asked to be on a national radio programme as an expert on sex...
My partner and I advertised for patrons in the Globe and Mail...
I impulsively bought my own publisher...
I've survived, making my living at it full time, for twenty years...
All the other possible answers involve personal interaction and therefore are private!
Last modified: July 26, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Candas Jane Dorsey