From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Conversation with Mary Robinette Kowal, Author of Shades of Milk and Honey

Congratulations on the publication of your first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey from Tor Books. Does being a published novelist feel different from being a published (and acclaimed) short story writer?

Bizarrely yes – which frustrates me. I adore short stories. But when I tell people that I have a novel coming out, their reaction is such that I feel like I wasn’t a real writer – in their eyes – until the novel sale. Both forms are hard in their own ways and can do different things, so it is a small thorn that novels are so often regarded as more legitimate than short stories.

Your stories range from settings in past Earth history, such as in your novel, through modern times to future times and other planets. Is there a time or place you prefer to set your stories, or do other considerations determine a tale’s time and place?
At the moment, I’m inclined to say that I prefer writing secondary world fantasies, because the level of research involved is soooooo much lower. But I’m in the midst of a historical fantasy right now, so my perceptions are skewed. The truth is that – for me –setting, story, and characters are all intertwined. There are just so many interesting places and opportunities that I’d hate to get pinned into one type of fiction.

You were an accomplished puppeteer and actress before your writing became well-known. As a child, did your first creative endeavors involve writing or acting/puppeteering ?
Honestly, I have no idea. I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything. And when I reach back for early memories, theater, art, music, and writing are all stacked on one another. I called my mom to ask her – because I’m clueless – and she also says that I seemed to be interested in everything. I think what I’m pulled to in each is the interaction with the audience, and the idea that I can transport them to someplace else.

I can imagine how being a performer can enhance one’s writing abilities. But do those performer instincts ever interfere with your writing?
Wow. That is a very interesting question. I can’t think of anything. But that probably means there’s something about my own writing to which I am blind.

Your stories encompass a wide range of themes, but one that emerges often is some aspect of the creative process. Does exploring aspects of creativity in your stories help to refine/enhance your own creativity?
I hadn’t actually noticed how many of my stories revolve around that until you asked. I suspect that I tend to gravitate to these topics because I’ve spent so much of my life working in creative professions. These are the questions that are already closest to the ones in which I am interested. I suspect that working them out in fiction does help me define my own views, but it has been a largely unconscious exploration.

An exception to that is in Shades of Milk and Honey, when Jane and Mr. Vincent debate about whether an informed audience has a greater ability to appreciate art than one that is not thinking about the mechanics of art. For that one, I had to argue two sides of the discussion, and present both points of view as logical and compelling. Since one of those sides is my natural opinion, it forced me to think seriously about why someone would hold the other position.

There is nothing like arguing with oneself to clarify an opinion.

You move between speculative fiction genres with ease. Horror, science fiction, and fantasy tales are all part of your repertoire. Did you choose to write a fantasy novel because that genre is your favorite?

Not really. I wrote five novels, two of which are SF. A fantasy novel – Shades of Milk and Honey – sold first. That’s not very romantic, is it? I’m unlikely to write a horror novel because I don’t read horror in long form. I dislike being scared, oddly.

What I love about SF and fantasy is that they allow you to take the familiar and turn it slightly to the side, which lets different aspects of it become apparent. There are stories and ideas that lend themselves to science-fiction and some that are easier to explore in fantasy. I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

Now, I do tend to write more SF in short stories and more fantasy in long form, but I’m afraid that is a crass marketing choice. According to several editors, there’s an apparent shortage of short science-fiction, particularly by female authors. In novel-length work, fantasy is more popular. Since I find it all interesting, I tend to favor the fantasy projects over the SF ones.

In your short story collection, Scenting the Dark and Other Stories, from Subterranean Press, you share a bit about the origins of each of the stories. From those tidbits, it seems that you often approach a story as a creative exercise. For example, you say that Jaiden’s Weaver arose as an exploration of life on a ringed planet. When you start from a Big Idea like that, where do you find the characters to inhabit such a setting?

I ask variations of the question, “Who has the most to lose?” That will be the character with the highest stakes, and probably the most interesting story.

Think back to your days when you first became serious about writing. What rookie mistakes did you make that you had to correct before your stories began to sell?
My beginnings and endings weren’t connected. It was really painful, like I was writing two different stories.

I know you’ve got a contract with Tor Books for a second novel, which I understand will be set in the same time and place as Shades of Milk and Honey. Do you want to share any hints about that second novel?

It takes place in 1815 – the year following Shades of Milk and Honey. It involves a honeymoon on the continent, the Prince Regent, Napoleon, and a school for glamour.

After that second novel, what are your writing goals? More novels set in other times and places? More short stories?
I’m continuing to write short stories, because I love the form. There’s also another novel in progress, which is completely unrelated to Shades of Milk and Honey, but is also an historical fantasy. It is set in Chattanooga during the early years of the 1900s. I’m still in the research phase for that one, so at the moment, I’m mostly reading a lot about the period.

Catherine Bollinger has been a freelance writer and editor for over a decade. A graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, she has amassed a tidy collection of encouraging rejections for her short story endeavors. She has been an avid reader of speculative fiction since she discovered the books of Jules Verne in her school’s library many long years ago.