From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Found in Translation: Juliette Wade

Juliette Wade is a writer of speculative fiction whose story Let the Word Take Me was published in the July/August 2008 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Her second published story, “Cold Words,” will also appear in Analog, in the October issue, on newsstands at the time of this interview. Her stories are unique in that they draw heavily on her background in anthropology and linguistics. So many science fiction stories avoid the topic of linguistics entirely, either by ignoring it, or by hand-waving with gadgets like universal translators. Juliette’s two Analog stories are centered around establishing communications with alien cultures.

Besides her successful fiction career, she also maintains a blog focused on discussions of linguistics and anthropology of both the real world and fictional locations. Her blog is particularly interesting because she makes it so interactive. You can raise questions there and she also periodically runs worldbuilding workshops, about which I’ve heard very good things. Check out her blog at www.talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com

Juliette, thanks for agreeing to this interview.

David Steffen: In your own words, could you tell us a little bit about “Cold Words” to pique our interest?

Juliette Wade: The thing I love most about “Cold Words” is that it takes what seems like a pretty simple spaceport deal and turns it into something really exciting by putting it in the point of view of a 6’4” drug-addicted wolflike alien with ulterior motives. Boy, did that add stakes and complications!

David: “Cold Words” is told from the point of view of a character who is not human. What particular challenges did this provide? Any advice for writers who would like to write from a non-human point of view?

Juliette: Creating Rulii and his voice was the biggest single investment of time and effort that went into the creation of the story. I actually started with the characteristics of his language, picked a species that would match well with status language issues, then designed the sounds and structure of his language. After that I figured out how I was going to reflect the structure of his language in English, and developed the prose. The step that followed was figuring out what kinds of metaphors he would use to describe his life, and the details of how he would live in the environment of his planet. I kept finding new places, like architecture, where the Aurrel species and their environment would require unique details. My advice to writers who want to write from a non-human point of view is to be systematic, and make sure you’re grounded in what the character knows based on his or her environment and experience, so you can use only those things to express the character’s judgment of people and events. Otherwise the human viewpoint will start to intrude.

David: You managed to get your very first fiction publication in Analog–which is on the top of many speculative writers’ “wish list”. Can you tell us a little bit about how this transpired? How long had you been writing before this sale?

Juliette: The Analog connection was very fortuitous, really the result of networking. I’d met Deborah J. Ross when we shared a panel at BayCon in Spring 2007, and having heard about my interest in Linguistics, she introduced me to Sheila Finch, author of The Guild of Xenolinguists, at Westercon a month later. Sheila was the one who told me that Analog‘s editor, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, enjoyed stories about linguistics. Because of Analog’s known interest in hard science fiction, I’d never before considered sending anything to them, but after her recommendation I gave it a try. And it worked!

David: What was your first reaction when you first heard of the story’s acceptance? How did you celebrate?

Juliette: I got the letter as I was running out the door to take my kids to gym, and could barely drive. When I opened it I found the first words were “I like ‘Let the Word Take Me’.” My heart was pounding. It was actually a conditional acceptance, because Dr. Schmidt wanted me to change some of the harder science aspects of the story, like whether the gecko aliens could stick to walls (they were too large to do so, according to the laws of physics). I knew this was my chance, so I changed those aspects of the story and sent it back. I agonized until I got confirmation that the story would be published. Then I did a happy dance!

David: How did your reaction to the second sale differ from the first?

Juliette: I was thrilled, actually, because this time it wasn’t a conditional acceptance, and Dr. Schmidt said very nice things about the story. Also, on some level, I was really relieved because I could now be sure the first acceptance hadn’t been a fluke. The first one was an idea I’d had for a long time and it happened to land, but Cold Words I designed expressly for Analog.

David: Has being published in Analog helped her with other pro markets? Sales? Personal rejections?

Juliette: I couldn’t say. I don’t think so; I’d been getting personal rejections for some time before the Analog sale. Also, since I designed “Cold Words” for them, I never sent it anywhere else. My other current stories are fantasy, so I don’t really think there’s much cross-influence.

David: Can you explain a little bit about how your world-building workshops work? Who is eligible to join? How do people join?

Juliette: Sure! The workshops are pretty informal and unscheduled. When I think I’ll have time to hold one, I post a poll on the blog asking for expressions of interest, and if I get enough, I schedule one. I get people to submit 500-word excerpts from the start of a story, and I pick five participants based on how helpful I think I can be to them. Anyone can submit – there’s no requirement that the story be *about* linguistics or anthropology issues – but because of my interests I particularly enjoy working with people who care about the worlds they’re building and take interest in strengthening those aspects of their stories. In the last few months I’ve been too busy to propose a workshop, but I hope to have time for a third one later this year.

David: If we found intelligent extraterrestrial life, how difficult do you think it would be to establish communication? Would it even be possible?

Juliette: In fact, I think it would be extremely difficult and maybe impossible, particularly if we were trying to accomplish it at a distance with no context of alien physiology or environment. There are Earthly scripts we still can’t decipher, and we certainly have difficulty with the more complex communications systems of animals on Earth, like dolphins and whales, for example. Languages are fitted to the transmission and reception systems possessed by their speakers, and we could find some things out there that would be beyond our ability to perceive, much less decipher.

David: With your background in linguistics, do you have trouble enjoying SF stories that avoid the issue of language barriers?

Juliette: Actually, no, though I always enjoy the ones that try to take language on. The classic solutions, universal translators or language-deciphering AI’s, are so prevalent that I generally consider them to be an element of premise, i.e. I just have to accept that the method works, somehow. That’s not too difficult to ignore, and then I can get onto enjoying what the story is really about.

David: Do you write novels, as well as short stories? If yes, do you prefer to write one or the other? Which comes easier to you?

Juliette: Yes, I write novels. I started writing them first, in fact, but I enjoy writing both. I found that starting to write short stories really helped me grasp some of the larger structural aspects of directing a story, so they’ve helped my novels a lot, indirectly.

David: What’s your favorite way to spend your time, besides reading and writing?

Juliette: Being with my family. Going out to the children’s museum, or ice skating with them, or just reading books, maybe helping my kids learn to use the computer. Also, talking with my husband is one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes we discuss my writing, and other times his work or events in the world.

David: If you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers trying to secure their first fiction sale, what would it be?

Juliette: Be dogged, both in improving your writing and in finding ways to connect to the community of writers. If you believe in it, just keep going.

David: More specifically, since you’ve had repeated sales to Analog, what is your advice to writers who wish to break into that particular market?

Juliette: It’s hard to say. I was lucky, in some sense, that linguistics is what I do and Dr. Schmidt happens to like it. But I do have two pieces of advice: don’t *not* submit just because you think Analog is a hard market to break into. Let the editor decide if your story is appropriate for them. The other is, keep in mind that Analog stories are very principled. Follow the guidelines as far as making science (linguistic or otherwise) integral to your plot, and be maniacal about keeping scientific grounding and consistency. This is not to say that you need to explain all the relevant science, just that it needs to serve as a rock-solid foundation for the story to succeed.

David: What was the last book you read?

Juliette: Ship of Dreams, a pirate historical romance written by my friend, Elaine LeClaire. Actually the first romance novel I’ve ever read, so it was fun and a change of pace. Very well written, too, with terrific historical detail – I heartily recommend her work.

David: Your favorite book?

Juliette: Hands down, my favorite book is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. It was the inspiration for my writing philosophy.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Juliette: In science fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin, for the depth and realism of her worlds and their people. In fantasy, I’d say Patricia McKillip, for her sense of story and her poetic use of language.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Juliette: In the theater, it would have to be WALL-E. A bleak vision of the future, but a wonderful story – and a testament to how effective body language can be in communication.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Juliette: I’m not sure. The Lord of the Rings series is certainly high on my list.

David: Are you currently working on any writing that you’d like to give a sneak peek at?

Juliette: I’m designing a new story for Analog, tentatively titled “At Cross Purposes,” where some human terraformers run into trouble with spacefaring aliens who have an unusual view of technology. Almost finished with a novel of linguistic fantasy, Through This Gate, involving a magic book that contains a world literally made from the delusional writings of a Japanese madwoman who has lived inside it since the 11th century.

David: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, Juliette. I look forward to picking up a copy of Analog to see your new story in print.

Also, thank you to Brad R. Torgerson for his contributions to this interview.

David Steffen lives in Minnesota with his lovely wife and two crazy dogs. He works as a software engineer, writing video processing algorithms for traffic cameras. No, not the kind that give you tickets. The good kind. Yes, there is a good kind. He writes speculative fiction and is an all-around media enthusiast. His fiction is scheduled to be published in Pseudopod and the Shadows of the Emerald City anthology, and his non-fiction has appeared here in Fantasy Magazine. Check out his blog at http://www.steffenwolf.blogspot.com.

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