MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Cat Rambo today. Cat lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 150+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection NEAR + FAR (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current Vice President of SFWA and its upcoming President. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, visit her web page here!
So, Cat… What took you so long to write a novel? And why so many being released this year?
CAT RAMBO: It’s not so much that it took me so long to write a novel as it took me so long to get one published. 😉 This year I’m releasing two, the first and second books of the Tabat Quartet, and hoping to release the next two next year. Part of the speed’s due to a very nice thing about small publishers – they’ve got much faster schedules, generally, than the traditional one. I do have a slew of books coming out this year, but that’s because there’s a couple of short story collections and a cookbook out in the mix.
VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Tabat series.
RAMBO: Tabat is a fantasy city that I’ve been working in for years now with short stories. It’s a city that depends heavily on intelligent magical creatures for its existence, and BEASTS OF TABAT takes place at a time in which many of those creatures are questioning that system. One of the advantages of having worked in it so much with short stories is that I know the world very well; another that’s emerged is that many of those stories have turned out to be foreshadowing of things that would take place in or affect the novel.
VENTRELLA: As an editor, how do you determine what you want? Could you tell within the first page whether it was something you wanted to read?
RAMBO: You can tell a lot from the first three paragraphs; mainly whether or not the author is capable of telling a good story. For me, I’d go through a batch of slush, maybe 40-50 stories, and perhaps pull out 5-6 that made me go hmm, maybe. Then I’d go back in a day or two and winnow out any story I couldn’t remember reading — maybe half. Even then you usually have to keep culling, and often that’s the point where you start thinking about things like the stories that will run with it (because you want a balance, or at least a feeling of coherence in an issue or anthology) or what else is in the pipeline.
VENTRELLA: What do you think SFWA should do about its admissions given the great changes in the publishing industry? Do you agree with what has been done so far?
RAMBO: I think SFWA should continue to observe the changes and try to react in ways that help it continue to serve professional writers. I absolutely agree with the recent changes in admitting independently and small press published writers – getting that in place was one of the reasons I ran for SFWA office.
At the same time we’re not abandoning the traditionally published writers, by any means. As part of the change, we also nudged up the necessary advance amount from $2k to $3k, in order to pressure publishers to give larger advances.
VENTRELLA: You’ve written books about how authors can use social media to promote themselves. What do you think is the biggest mistake made?
RAMBO: I think being negative or mean in social media is one of the biggest mistakes. You can be clever/cruel, sure, and build a following, but I keep seeing that strategy eventually biting people in the ass. I was reading someone’s post the other day, who was lamenting that a particular workshop never had invited them to teach, and I am pretty sure I know the reason why, which was a lot of very funny but rather cruel things said about not just their students but that workshop.
VENTRELLA: I’ve been advised many times to avoid talking about politics in social media, but I refuse to shut up. Should I worry? Do you think this will limit me in making connections and book sales?
RAMBO: If you’re writing good books, that’s the most important thing. But beyond that it really depends on how you’re doing it. I’ve got Facebook friends that feel obliged to come correct me whenever they think I’m wrong politically, and there’s a big difference for me between the ones who will say, hey, I think that argument is skewed and here’s the data/reason why I think that, and the ones who come screaming in strafing about dirty dirty (noun of your choice) oppressing them.
So – if you’re being reasonable about it and interested in discussion rather than scoring points – I think anyone who would refuse to make a connection because of your politics might not be worth making connections with.
VENTRELLA: There’s so much I could ask you about the whole sick puppies controversy. How do you think the Hugos should deal with them?
RAMBO: The WSF and the valiant volunteers who run Worldcon each year have my deepest sympathy and good wishes. But rarely have I been so glad to not have SFWA involved in a particular controversy – and I don’t think we should be, because we have members on several different sides – and I firmly believe there are a kerjillion “sides”, not an Us vs. Them in the way it keeps getting parsed. I wish I had a solution that would leave everyone feeling happy and as though their various concerns had been heard – but I’m not sure that solutions exists.
VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?
RAMBO: Certainly there are some people that pick it up faster than others. I suspect that the amount of reading one does has a certain affect on that. But I’ve also seen people move from not particularly competent writers to ones whose writing I’ll seek out. The fact is, though, that if someone’s working at it – writing, and thinking about writing and how to make it better – they will, barring something physiologically wrong with them.
We learn storytelling in the same way we learn our native language, by listening and retelling, first fairy tales and legends and other children’s stories. We know the grammar and the expectations: that something happens, that there is a beginning, middle and end, and so forth. It’s one of the things that makes interacting with kids so much fun – witnessing them learn how storytelling works. I’m on vacation right now with my godkids, aged 5 and 7, and we’ve been playing a lot of storytelling games.
VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?
RAMBO: I need a good starting point, usually. With short stories, most of the time I’ve spent a good period thinking about the story and how it will progress before I start writing it down, and have a good idea of the shape.
For example, I recently was working on a story I’ve tentatively titled, “The Owlkit, the Candymaker, the Beekeeper, and the Brewer.” I knew it was the story of a lost animal looking for a home in a specific setting that I’ve written in a couple of times before, and I knew it would interact with each of the people mentioned in the title. When I knew a little bit about their circumstances and how they related to each other, I was able to sit down and write a first draft. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending, so I put the story aside for a few days and then went back when I’d figured out how I wanted to refine the ending.
Books are entirely different, and every one so far has been its own particular flavor of chaos.
VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?
RAMBO: Here’s the thing. Stories are, at their hearts, about being human. About what human beings do. And that’s where “write what you know” comes in. You may not know what it’s like to be a mermaid pining away for a mortal love, but all of us know what it’s like to suffer unrequited love. That’s the heart of the story, and it’s where you do have to dig deep into your own experience and put it on the page.
It’s helpful to know wonderful, realistic details that help you create an engaging, immersive world. To be able to use them as part of the story. But without some human heart to it, all those details won’t do much.
VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?
RAMBO: That depends so much on the person and their circumstances. If writing short stories is hard for them, for example, then a novel might be the most logical place. For another, for whom it comes more naturally, writing short stories might be a better way to get their name known to the point where an agent will be interested – but that’s not going to help without a good book to sell.
VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?
RAMBO: One of the things I’ve been doing lately is calling it independent publishing, rather than self publishing, because to me that’s one of the niftiest things about the current publishing scene: writers are not required to go through the set of traditional gateways they’ve had to in the past. Now there’s a lot of different publishing models, including crowd-funding, subscriptions, small press, etc.
Writers differ wildly. For those who don’t want to handle marketing or any of the business aspects, the traditional options are still there. But that model doesn’t make as much sense for the very prolific or the ones who are also skilled in self-marketing. That’s really pretty nifty.
VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?
RAMBO: Someone once told me that editors don’t like stories with cats in them. This also qualifies as the most bizarre piece of writing advice I ever got.
VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?
RAMBO: I’m working on the sequel to BEASTS OF TABAT right now — HEARTS OF TABAT — which will be followed by the other two books of the quartet, EXILES OF TABAT and GODS OF TABAT. I’ve also got a new story collection coming out this fall, NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, which is another double-sided collection like an earlier one, NEAR + FAR. I’ve also got a young adult novel that I’m picking away at and want to have a complete draft of by the end of the summer.