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Interview with Karin Lowachee
Here is our complete interview with Karin Lowachee. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 18.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: Could you tell us about your experience with the Warner First Novel Contest?
KL: A friend of mine forwarded me the information when I was working on Warchild -- I was maybe half way through. He said, "This might be something that you want to submit to." I'd known about the first contest and I'd known that Nalo Hopkinson won the first one. So I said, "OK." And I worked to finish the book for that deadline, which was good. I submitted it and then I tried to forget about it. They asked for the rest of the manuscript, and I was hearing through the grapevine at conventions that it was moving up the ladder. It was down to the last 15, last 10, last 5, and then when I was working up north I got a call from Betsy Mitchell about it being considered as a winner. A month later I found out that I won. The contest was cool because you don't have to wait as long as you normally do when you submit to publishers, because it was in a fixed amount of time that they said they'd get back to you along the way. I had to submit by the end of June and by December I knew that I'd won. So my novel wasn't sitting somewhere at a publisher for a year or more, which is the norm.
CD: What prompted you to start writing Warchild?
KL: I was working on a fantasy, a completely different type of novel. It stalled around page one hundred and something. The idea for Warchild had been one that was kicking around in my head for a long time, and these characters. I thought the book would be from a completely different point of view, actually, not Jos's. I literally woke up one morning with the second person point of view in my head, from his point of view. When I shelved the fantasy and started working on SF I thought I was going to tell a completely different type of story. I was trying to plot this other story, and I realized that the story actually started with this character in this situation. To tell what I wanted to tell had to start with him, and maybe he was working at the back of my brain because I woke up with the first line of the book. Then I sat down one day and out came the first nine pages or so. And then from that I just kept going with it, because I wanted to find out what his experience was. And developed the idea through the character.
CD: Are there any authors you'd say are influences on your writing?
KL: Yes. No surprise, C. J. Cherryh. Mainly because in my formative years when I started to take writing seriously in the sense that I thought I want to publish -- it became something I wanted to do as opposed to something I was just doing. I started reading her books in high school, and Cyteen was one of the first books of hers that I read -- and that book just so blew me away. The way that she handled everything, the politics and the characters and the science. I started devouring her books -- of course, she has many, many books.
When I discovered Maureen McHugh, she really influenced me. In the point of view -- the way that she treats point of view and character. The way that she distills character, and her worlds, and the way that she distills language to evoke character. China Mountain Zhang -- I read that and read that book because I was so blown away by it. Her other works too. When I was developing my head space as a writer those two were definitely there. Some fantasy writers as well that I love like Guy Kay, Katherine Kerr, Tad Williams, writers like that.
There are books that I remember that turned my head, in the sense that they set me in a different perspective, getting me into more of a writerly mind. Cyteen was one, China Mountain Zhang was another, and Tigana. At the point in my life that I was as a person and as a writer, those books picked me up by the scruff of the neck and I sat up. Little epiphanies went off -- this is what they're doing with voice, this is what they're doing with story, this is what they're doing writing a single book epic. In a literature of lots of sequels, Tigana really blew me away because it was this encapsulated story that was so rich.
When I was younger it was The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. If any book put it in my mind that I would want to do this as a career it was that one. It was in grade 5 or 6 that I read that book. I loved the characters, I loved the story. It's a social commentary. These characters from the wrong side of the tracks -- it's all about family and loyalty and friendship. At the time it was considered gritty -- she was writing about gangs and that kind of thing. The Narnia Chronicles, Watership Down. You can track my growth as a writer through those books.
CD: Your first two books seem to deal with stories of war and their effect on young people. Was that the way you wanted things to go, or the story that you found yourself telling?
KL: A little bit of both, they kind of informed each other. When I found that I was telling the story about this boy I wanted to be true to the story, true to the character in the sense that I didn't want to flinch from the realities. I started doing research and reading about what young people go through who are in these situations. And finding a real passion to want to show that, and not to gloss it over and just have him triumphant or to have him be this soldier. I wanted to write a military novel about a broken character -- he stays broken. The flashpoint of his life, where the book starts, the thing that changes his life -- how he reacts and everything he experiences after that is influenced by this moment in time. He never casts it off.
Everyone writes books for different reasons. For me, it's the psychoanalysis of the character. For me then to stay true to that, I don't want to show that he just gets over it by the end of the book. The books are almost like a prologue and when the reader's done -- from the feedback I get from readers -- they then write the rest of it. The book takes the character up to the point of change, and instead of showing how he reacts to this world and other people after that point of change it stops at that point. The point of change is not one thing, his coming to realize his place -- it's a slow incremental process. I really wanted it to be something that builds, and the character doesn't even realize himself that he's changing. Because we don't, really, until years down the road. Since I'm dealing with youth from 8 to 17 he doesn't realize he's going through these changes, he doesn't realize how he's being affected. He's still just doing his thing. From the psychological point of view I got very passionate about that. I want to depict characters who react to things in a realistic way, like how we would. So if something traumatic happens in their life they don't just get over it. It's something that they live with. Sometimes they think of it more than others. They have to work through it, but they'll probably never completely work through it. I hope that at the end of the books you get the sense that they'll be able to cope with it better but they're not necessarily triumphant over it. I don't want to write those kinds of stories. Also to deal with more of the subtleties of pressures like that, of a war.
In the second book the character was on the outside of that. I very purposely took the point of view of someone who's completely not like Jos. I wanted to do somebody who is more like us, in the sense that their only relationship to the war is through the media. It's something that happens to other people, and you have a sense of upset about it because you realize it's upsetting, but at the same time you have no real connection to it because you're not in it. So his trauma is a bit more subtle, and also I was dealing with a depressed character. I read a lot of reviews where they say he's a brat, and it's true that he is, but I very consciously had that as a facade because he is a depressed person and the way that he interacts with the world is as a depressed person. If you are a depressed person, a lot of his reactions make a lot of sense -- his head space makes a lot of sense in that context.
I access my books through the psychological, and I really wanted to examine that and not have easy answers because people psychologically aren't easy -- to have them work through their problems within their own sphere. It's easy for us on the outside to say that certain people need to react a certain way when they're in situations. I wanted to have it that these kids don't always react the way that they should, because they don't have the mechanism to be that objective -- but then how many of us do?
There's a little bit more in the world stage now about child soldiers. When I was dealing with Warchild back in 1999-2001 it didn't seem to be such an issue. You couldn't find a lot of media coverage, but now it's coming out on a regular basis about these child soldiers in Africa or the child exploitation and slave trade. Just in this past year alone I've seen at least two news exposés, one on CNN and one on a Canadian news program, that went into the child exploitation rings. I started to realize that this is something I really want to discuss in my work, I'm not tired of it. The disenfranchisement of children and the exploitation of children -- their voice isn't really represented in this genre. You get other voices represented very strongly or beginning to get represented strongly, but I don't see a whole lot from the child's point of view and the child experience. To have it be more than just a coming-of-age novel -- that's a broad term. I'm shooting for the moon and I might not quite be getting there. But that's what I want to do, really examine what happens when you put children in these situations because it is going on right now.
One thing I found when I was doing the research was that nothing I was writing about was as horrific as what's actually going on. The stuff that's actually going on is 10 times more horrific -- I am touching on it, I hope. Especially with the third novel, it delves into it a lot more than the first two -- the exploitation of the children. So much of our society can be judged on how we treat our children, I think. When I'm talking about a future society that I'm setting up and a war between races, how these larger powers treat the children or affect the children is my way of accessing that future society. Instead of talking about the politicians, generals, and admirals affecting the society I want to look at the children who are at the bottom, so to speak, or the ones being acted upon. Through their experience, cast an eye on what I'm saying about the social aspect of the worlds.
CD: Your books are futuristic space opera, which maybe comes with expectations of a heroic character. How do you balance what you want to do in your story with the generic expectations of how those kind of stories go?
KL: I hope that I upturn them a little bit. People might pick up the book because of the way it's marketed or whatever, expecting it to be a straight adventure story. I've had feedback from readers since Warchild and that's what it is -- readers that don't necessarily read genre but they picked it up for whatever reason. And they read it and they're surprised because they went in expecting it to be a straight Star Wars-y kind of thing and they come out of it really harrowed. They find it upsetting. It's not like I set out with that as a goal but I did want to be true to the character. Everything else is trapping. I have that sense of wonder for different worlds, different societies, but I basically just use it as a framework to talk about these other things. It comes back to the character -- for me, it's the character that's important, and that's how I balance it. If people go into it with certain expectations that's their prerogative. I can't write to those people -- I write the story that I want to write. My books can be clumped into space opera but because they're so specific in the character's head I think they're a little bit different from that.
CD: In the first two books both of the main characters are boys. Are you interrogating masculinity in SF?
KL: Interrogating masculinity in SF, I like that. I didn't have any insidious intention. My characters just come. I tend to just enjoy writing from a male point of view, maybe because I'm not male and for me it's interesting to explore. On the other hand, writing a male point of view that is that broken -- when I became more conscious of it, this is not a character that I see often, especially in the military SF genre. I guess in the back of my mind I wanted to overturn some of that. You read about victimized women, and there are great stories about victimized women. But when it comes to victimized men and treating it in a real way, it's almost like they're a voice just in common day -- not in genre fiction. It's horrible enough for a woman and I think that it's different for a boy to go through that. The macho ideas of what to emote and what not to emote, I wanted to examine that too. Other people are writing about women in these positions and saying things with women in these societies. I wanted to write about guys in these societies, but in a way that I don't see a lot of in the trappings of space opera, in the trappings of military SF. I wanted to plop down boys that are unlike that typical model, that struggle with all of these things -- that don't overcome, necessarily. I was very conscious with the second book when I was writing Jos through Ryan's eyes that he didn't come off as all together now -- everything is fine now that his book's done. I didn't want that at all. Ryan is able to pinpoint that this is a kid that has some issues. Ryan himself has issues, but not in a typical way. I think he's a very atypical character just because he is so listless. He has no purpose for a lot of the book. He doesn't think he has any purpose. I wanted to take male characters and put them in positions you don't necessarily see in that genre.
CD: What kind of responses have you gotten?
KL: Overall pretty positive, from men and women. From the feedback I've gotten from emails and talking to people at conventions it seems to be an even representation that men and women respond to the characters really well. There's the occasional guy who will say that there's too much emotion, but I think that just points to what they were expecting when they picked the book up. A lot of it has to do with the reader's expectations. A lot of the men find it difficult to read some passages. There seems to be some ambiguity -- I have a couple of responses where there's ambiguity about what exactly went on. The majority of people really get what I was trying to do, people really understand the character. I set myself up with Ryan because I knew that he would not be easily likeable. Jos, the majority of people took to him right away -- how can you not, it's a child in a perilous situation. I consciously went away from that with the second book and took an adolescent who is very prickly, and to warm up to him takes a much longer time. I wanted to challenge people when they read that -- to challenge their perceptions of how you would interact with somebody like that, whether you dismiss him out of hand or you try and get in his head. Whether I'm successful or not is up to what people think, to a certain extent.
CD: Have you written short stories as well as novels?
KL: I wrote one that sold to one of Nalo Hopkinson's upcoming anthologies called So Long Been Dreaming, and that'll be out in May from Arsenal Pulp Press. That was the first short story I'd written in a very long time. It's hard for me to switch gears. When I'm in a novel I'm in a novel. I think I'm a natural novel writer, I'm not a natural short story writer. For me, writing a short story is a challenge because I tend to want to explore really deeply, to really get into things. Because I take a psychological approach to my books, I want 500 pages to explore that psyche, and you obviously cannot in short stories. I do want to write more short stories, just because I don't want to cut myself off from anything when it comes to writing. I want to try everything and test myself in all these different ways. It was a really good challenge for me to write it and then see if it was good enough to actually sell somewhere.
CD: Would one of the ways you would challenge yourself be writing in a different genre than SF?
KL: Yes, like I said, before Warchild I was working on a fantasy. I don't want to limit myself that way at all. Of course, there are realities when you build a career -- you can't just run off after three SF novels and write a western. You'd be killing yourself. There are practicalities which I completely understand. It's just a matter of writing what story when. And what story will bite me enough that I want to spend the next year of my life working on it -- that has a lot to do with it too. I certainly don't want to be pigeonholed -- there's such a danger in that as an artist. In any kind of art, to do the same thing over and over again, except in a different guise -- I really don't want to do that. I get readers who say, "Will you write another book from Jos's point of view?" I don't know -- I certainly didn't plan to. I very specifically knew from the beginning with his book that was it for now. I didn't want to recycle the same story except in a different guise. I wanted the challenge of, when I wrote Ryan, for him to be Ryan and not Jos in a different situation. Even within the genre I don't want to recycle the same thing and dress it up differently. I want to push against the borders of my own creativity. I don't see how I could possibly do that if I was just writing the same types of books. I think I would get very restless because I don't read just space opera. My influences come from all over and I want to be able to express that in different ways.
CD: Do you have plans to go back to the fantasy?
KL: Definitely. I think I've grown so much as a writer since that point that I'll probably do something vastly different to it. The core ideas I really like and I want to expand on it. The tools I've kind of learned -- still learning, obviously -- from writing these books hopefully will apply to that when I go back to it. Thinking in terms of career, it has to be done at the right time.
CD: How do you go about creating an alien race?
KL: Well, I've only done it once. I admit that that's not my forte. I'm not a studied anthropologist or anything like that. My interest in it was that I wanted to make a cool species. There's still that aspect of it -- you want to make something that's interesting. I very specifically wanted them to be just human enough that you can relate. But their very humanness -- what you perceive as humanness -- is what's the most disconcerting. The stuff that's not human contrasted with the perceived humanity is what makes them very disconcerting. It would be almost easier to relate to them if they were a complete Other in the sense that the didn't have a humanish form or a humanish shape or lived in houses. I wanted to just make them just human enough to be that strange.
There's that one scene when Ryan glimpses the aliens and wigs out. We all would like to say because we grew up on Star Trek that if we met something that was actually Other we would be fine with it and wouldn't have some sort of crisis in our head. But from Ryan's point of view he had a little bit of a wig out because in his head he's saying, "These aren't animals that grew up on Earth. Even when I played with dogs on Earth and they're completely different from humans there's still that recognition from generations of growing up around each other -- there's that recognition between the animal and human." He was wigging out because here's this thing that looks kind of human but it's not a guy in a costume, it's not an animated character, it's an actual being who has absolutely no relation to him because it's from a completely different world. That's what freaks him out -- this thing having no relation to him in any shape, way, or form. You can find a bonding connection with a dolphin that people do, maybe because there's some commonality in our geography.
Jos had kind of a connection but not really. I wanted to make an alien that they were alien in thought, that you don't necessarily understand them at all. Jos has very little interaction with them and Ryan has virtually none. I didn't want to explain them, I didn't want them to be wholly explainable -- identifiable maybe in certain aspects but not explainable. So you don't understand why they're doing things. None of these characters would. I would have to write from Niko's point of view to get a better understanding of that.
CD: You taught adult education in Nunavut. Could you tell us about that experience, and has that experience influenced your writing at all?
KL: I went up to this other culture, where there were commonalities to Southern culture but there were also vast differences. Being surrounded by a different language, by physically a different environment, was really fascinating for me. I absolutely loved it. It really was the most outstanding experience of my life. I think every Canadian should go and see the Arctic, that takes up so much of the country. It's an outstanding place to see and to be encompassed by. It's so completely different from what we're doing down here. Just the environment alone. And then when you get into the culture, such a fascinating culture, and the people are fantastic to interact with. It was a real joy and eye-opening experience. You go up there to "teach" but I was the one soaking everything up, like a sponge. Just the snow -- it sounds so typical, but blizzards up there are blizzards -- and the wind. And being 5 minutes out of town, from my point of view you have no recognizable features -- they thought it was funny. We would go out on the land and looking around and I would say, "I almost expect to see telephone poles." When you go here and drive across the country you will still see telephone poles or something. It's very rare that you would go somewhere and not see any man-made features. You go up there and 5 minutes out of town -- the land is very undulating so you lose the horizon of the town very quickly. All of a sudden you're surrounded by nothing but land as far as the eye can see. And sky. That really does something to your perspective. The feelings that that evoked, being in this other place. I have a huge respect for it -- you respect the land and respect your vulnerability in that environment, because it's not your natural environment.
It was almost like reverse research. I did the edits for Warchild when I was up there. When I went through the edits I was trying to access those feelings I was having and infuse them somehow in what Jos was experiencing being in this environment that was so completely different from what he grew up in, which was a shipborn culture, a very enclosed culture. And then he's on this planet -- for a whole month he didn't leave his room or that house. Because it would have been a little bit overwhelming for him. There are some scenes that got edited out, like when he went down to the beach and things like that -- the Easter eggs of the book. There are some scenes that I wanted to show he's very much out of his element.
CD: You alluded to the fact that the first section of Warchild is in the second person. It's a bit unusual.
KL: It just came out that way. It wasn't until after that everyone was telling me, "That's so difficult to do. Not a lot of people do it successfully. There's Bright Lights, Big City and then nothing else." Ignorance is a wonderful thing sometimes. You don't get bogged down with what you can and can't do. I try to retain that now -- I'm not going to be concerned with what's been done and what hasn't been done, and what are rules and what aren't rules. It's good to know the "rules" so you're conscious of it when you break them. They should be broken, to some extent. The voice came to me in that voice. It wasn't until later I realized it was a natural voice to do because it's a distancing voice. It's the voice people take when they are recounting trauma. They distance themselves through the use of the "you," the second person. I never intended the entire book to be that way. I knew very early on when it was stop -- it would stop at the end of that experience with Falcone, and then it would switch to the "I." That first part was his recounting, his distancing. It's specifically not specific about what happened. He flat out denies it in the book when he's asked by Azarcon what happened. I trust the reader to be astute enough to know that the first person is the most unreliable point of view.
People should not read first person like they're reading third. And a writer should not write first person like they're writing third. It shouldn't be a matter of substituting "I" for "he." If you're taking the "I" point of view, you're in that character's head -- or you should be. Which means that you take up all of their prejudices, their inconsistencies, their jaundiced view of things and infuse that into the story and challenge the reader to parse what is it that they're saying, if it's true or not. Are they seeing things as clearly as you can see them? Somehow try to tell the story on two levels -- if the reader understands the macro while they're being filtered through the micro point of view. That was a fun challenge. That's why I'm fascinated by the first person -- it challenges the reader and the writer to do that, tell a macro story through a very micro point of view.
CD: You've just finished your third book. Can you tell us about that one?
KL: It's called Cagebird. It's from Yuri's point of view -- Yuri shows up at the end of Burndive, and he's talked about in Burndive. It's basically his experience. The pitchy way of saying it is it's from the bad guy's point of view. He's a pirate -- he's the pirate after Falcone, who everybody hates, who's the driving force behind a lot of Jos's trauma, who Ryan hears about who had this huge influence on his father. I wanted to write the point of view of the kid who was the most influenced by him because he bought into it for 12 years -- so he is the person that all the other characters view as the bad guy. It was very harrowing to write. Not for the mechanics, but for the content.
CD: If you could write the novel you've always wanted to write what would it be?
KL: That's the one that I'm always writing. The one that I just finished, that's almost the novel that I wrote the first two to prepare to write. I very much wanted to write the first two and wanted to say those things and explore those characters. But the third one -- it's almost the culmination of the other two. This was the story that I really needed to write after the first two, because of the point of view of this person who bought into everything that the first two books were saying was bad, was horrible. To turn all of that on its head. How do you relate to somebody who's in that situation? I drew a lot of influence from those boy soldiers in Africa who were forced to commit atrocities. How do you judge them? Do you judge them? Obviously they murdered people but it was at gunpoint. How much of that is their responsibility? Even the ones that grow up in it and buy into the propaganda of these warlords, how much are they responsible?
CD: When you've finished a novel, do you find yourself satisfied with it?
KL: Never after the first draft. I'm satisfied with the two novels that are in print right now. It wasn't always so -- I certainly didn't want the novel that I submitted to the contest to go to print. I knew it wouldn't. I knew that it needed work. With Burndive it took a lot of warming up to. It was such a completely different type of story. Warchild takes place over eight years and Burndive's three months. It's as opposite a book to write as can be from the character down to the structure and the timeframe. It's very distilled. It was very difficult to write.
CD: What do you think of the current state of SF?
KL: I certainly haven't read all of it. Funnily enough when I'm writing it I don't tend to read it, for whatever reason. I find authors that I love and then I stick to them -- they tend not to disappoint book after book. I tend to read for influence, so for the last book I was reading a lot about refugees, and journals from children, and newspaper articles and articles online about child exploitation and children in war. I wasn't really reading fiction in that stage. As for the current state of SF, it seems fine to me -- I still find books that I like, there are amazing writers out there producing amazing books. So I'm not worried.
CD: How much time do you spend on your web site, or other ways of promoting your work?
KL: I'm going to be rehauling my web site before the third book comes out, just because I get tired of it. The look of it, and also the content. People find me through the web site -- that contact with the readers is important. What's really cool about having the web site is you have that contact with your readers, whereas ordinarily you wouldn't unless you go to conventions or book signings. I have people who email me from all over the world. I have one from Okanawa, a military guy who found my book. I have a reader in Malaysia, readers from France, all over. They find me through the web site, and they email and tell me their thoughts. And Israel -- Warchild was translated for an Israeli publisher. So I'm getting comments from people in Israel, which is interesting. The web site asks for feedback and interaction. The message board is a lot of fun -- they get to romp and play and do silly things. And I participate in it, because -- why not? I've had readers who submitted artwork from the books. That's really cool -- they're so moved that they want to produce something else creatively and show it to me. I do that -- I completely do that with other people's work. Before I started doing my own work, I would want to draw pictures or build images of characters in these other worlds.
I have a thing that I call the "street team" -- they go out and they move my books around on the shelves, and they hand my books off to their friends -- it's a great network of readers that I'm going to be organizing a little bit more. Really just for fun. Musicians use this -- it's de rigueur in the music world that you have people who are passionate about your work and so they want to share it. That's part of promotion. It's not anything that I hit over people's heads to do -- they do it anyway. Readers are very much like that -- I'm a reader and if I find a great book like that I tell all my friends.
CD: What do you think of the cover artwork on your books?
KL: For the first book, at the Philadelphia WorldCon she brought the cover. I was so stunned because -- there's my name. It's your first novel and it's an experience. I tend not to be over-enthusiastic on the outside -- inside I was doing jumping jacks. She said, "Do you like it?" I said, "I do." She didn't quite know what to do with that. I was just so stunned that it was in that physical form -- it was such a thrill. The buzz from all my friends as well. I was so happy that Jos was dark haired. The artist is just wonderful. I have very specific visual images in my head of the people that I write about. He seems to tap into it fairly well, considering he's not in my head.
The second book was a different experience. I have the best publisher -- they actually were kind enough to show me the proofs that he was working on and asked my opinion. I sent back two paragraphs worth of what I thought I would like to see if I had a choice. I suggested his outfit, because it's something that he wore in the book. And I wanted him blond.
CD: So they made some changes?
KL: His outfit completely changed, the look of the character completely changed. The pose of the character. I wanted his hair lighter, because he bleaches it in the book. The artist is very kind that he didn't tell me to go away. The art director and everybody seemed to be pleased with my suggestions. I'm hoping that carries over into the third book, because I already have it in my head how I want it. I don't have to worry.
For the second book, because it's made such a big deal that he's an attractive person if he wasn't attractive on the cover it would have been ridiculous. People would see that and go, "What are you talking about?" It's hilarious -- I've had teenage girls tell me they picked up the books only because the guys on the cover were hot. And sometimes grown women. Why not? But I don't make my characters good looking for the hell of it -- there were specific reasons that I do it for that's in the context of the novel.
I love the fact that because they're single points of view novels they didn't clutter it. I didn't want a spaceship or some flashy alien -- I wanted it to be an intimate thing, because the books are intimate in that way. And for it to show the character in some way. I love Ryan's pose -- it's very much him. I'm anxious to see what he does with the third one -- I'm hoping and assuming they'll get the same artist. At one point I'd like to meet him and thank him in person. His name is Matt Stawicki -- he's done a lot of covers for fantasy and SF, he has a book out, and he's done some card series.
Last modified: April 19, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Karin Lowachee