Interview with Nebula Award Winner Elizabeth Moon

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing Elizabeth Moon! I first discovered her work with “The Deed of Paksenarrion” series way back when… I’m pleased to be interviewing her today! Elizabeth Moon grew up on the Texas-Mexican border.  She has two degrees (Rice University, history; University of Texas at Austin, biology) , spent three years on active duty with the USMC, served six years on a volunteer rural EMS service, and has been married (as of Sept 20, 2019) forty-nine years, ten months, and 20 days.  She has published twenty-eight novels, including Nebula winner THE SPEED OF DARK, and Hugo nominee REMNANT POPULATION,  fifty shorter works in anthologies and magazines, and four short fiction collections, most recently DEEDS OF HONOR (2014).   Her most recent novel is Into the Fire (Del Rey, 2018.)  When not writing, she enjoys horses, swords, knitting socks, baking, and photographing native plants and wildlife.

Tell us the story of how you got your first book published.

ELIZABETH MOON: That’s a long, old story. But OK. SHEEPFARMER’S DAUGHTER had been rejected lots of places when my agent sent me a rejection letter from Baen (he doesn’t send me rejection letters anymore). I reacted…firmly…to the rejection letter, sending it to my agent and detailing why the reasons given in the letter were factually wrong. With references. Plus, maybe “a woman” couldn’t write believable military-based fantasy, but a Marine sure could.

So my agent sent it back to Baen emphasizing my military experience, and Jim Baen felt he had to at least look at the book, and he liked it, and he published it and the other two in the group. That in itself was impressive. But more than that, he told the story on himself, more than once, for which I respected him greatly. And so it came out, and then it started selling well, and then it sold better, and it’s still in print 30 years later. (That’s the short version. The long version I tell at conventions sometimes, and it’s funnier, but much longer.)

VENTRELLA: Do you plan a series out in advance or just take it one book at a time?

MOON: Sometimes one and sometimes the other.. I usually know at the start if the story’s going to be longer than one volume, but I’m frequently wrong about how many. After all “The Deed of Paksenarrion” was intended to be a short story. It grew.

VENTRELLA: Is it important for readers to read each series from the start or can the books be enjoyed individually?

MOON: Unlike a true series (e.g. some detective series where there is little or no development or overarching plotline) mine are conceived as a story that’s too long to fit in one volume, though I do try for a subplot arc for each volume. Thus it’s better to start with the first of each group, and starting later than the second can lead to confusion.

VENTRELLA: If someone were to read this interview and say “I should check out her work,” what book would you recommend they start with?

MOON: Depends on what that person likes. If it’s epic fantasy, then they can start with the first volume in the Deed of Paksenarrion (SHEEPFARMER’S DAUGHTER) or DEEDS OF HONOR, a collection of shorter works.

For science fiction of the space opera or military SF type, HUNTING PARTY for the Serrano Suiza books (though ONCE A HERO is just possible as an entry point) or TRADING IN DANGER, the first book of “Vatta’s War.” The two standalone novels, REMNANT POPULATION and THE SPEED OF DARK could each be an entry point; THE SPEED OF DARK is (as my editor pointed out) “barely” SF, being set in the very near future, which is closer now than it was in 1999 when I started it.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever surprised yourself when writing?

MOON: Many times. Sometimes happy surprises and sometimes not. I had no hint that Sergeant Stammel had put on a red shirt (of the Star Trek type) early on in the “Paladin’s Legacy” group, until the book in which he was attacked. I’d expected him to retire eventually, up in the duke’s territories like most of the older soldiers. On the other side of the SF/fantasy line, I did not expect the junior officer who ended up commanding a ship after a mutiny in WINNING COLORS to be the reason the story didn’t end there. Esmay Suiza turned out to be a remarkable plot generator of a character, shedding light on history and other characters alike for another four books.

VENTRELLA: How has your military experience helped shape your fiction?

MOON: It made writing military fiction possible, both because it gave me direct experience of the military and because it gave me (just barely) enough legitimacy as a woman writing it to get it published. The direct experience is invaluable, yet male writers who had not themselves served can get by with second-hand research. Some women had already written good military scenes in fantasy, but as with much woman-written fantasy at the time (’70s & ’80s) their work was not recognized as military fiction.

VENTRELLA: Most military science fiction is written by men. Do you notice that when reading it? 

MOON: It’s interesting: male-written military SF has changed a lot in the past thirty years, in large part due to Joe Haldeman’s FOREVER WAR, I think. In my generation, all men in this country were affected by the draft, whether they accepted it or fought it. Men who had not served rarely wrote military fiction, while those who did serve wrote a specific slant of it… until Haldeman. As younger men grew up out of the shadow of the draft, the types of military SF (and military fantasy, as well) written by veterans and non-veterans became quite recognizable. Veterans have the “feel” of the military, whether male or female, something non-vets find hard to hit (including those who were military dependents.) However, some non-vets have access to military culture via spouses, parents, siblings.

VENTRELLA: How does yours differ?

MOON: Compared to most male-written military SF, I believe I have more realistic female military and civilian personnel. Not just because I was in the military, but specifically as a woman writer. There’s more to writing good military fiction than being able to create good female military personnel, of course.

VENTRELLA: Are there any authors you really like or really hate?

MOON: I don’t like to discuss specific writers whose works I don’t like–not fair to them or their fans–but military or fantasy SF can fail for the same reasons “real world” military fiction can fail–it’s not true to military science, military history, military cultures (not just ours) or the military culture does not mesh with the civilian culture out of which it grows.

Authors I really like include Lois McMaster Bujold, whose stories of Barrayar’s military culture feel real for its history, and the other cultures she depicts also express themselves realistically throughout. Tanya Huff’s books featuring Torin Kerr are excellent. C.J. Cherryh’s ability to create alien military cultures (including in the Foreigner series which I’ve recently re-read) reads very well.

VENTRELLA: When you first started writing, having women in combat was “science fiction” and is now a reality. Has that made it easier for “sad puppy” types to accept your work or are they unredeemable? Did you get criticism at the time that has now subsided?

MOON: I have no idea what they think of my work or if their opinion has changed. For much of my writing life, I was also extremely busy beyond writing and paying only minimal attention to what was going on in the field. I heard stuff from friends, but concentrated on the immediate issues that cropped up every day. There’ve always been those who didn’t like it, and those who did. Since those who did bought enough books to keep the lights on and the bills paid, I didn’t worry about those who didn’t.

VENTRELLA: How have you used your education in history and biology to further your fiction?

MOON: In multiple ways. I studied history with two professors at Rice–Floyd Seward Lear and Katherine Fischer Drew–who were both remarkable scholars. Lear was an amazing connection to past scholarship (he’d been at Oxford, a classmate of Arnold Toynbee) and Drew had, besides many other strengths, translated two of the barbarian-Roman legal codes, the Lombard Laws and the Burgundian Code, both of which I used as background when writing the big fantasy books and considering how the Code of Gird developed. Lear’s book Treason in Roman and Germanic Law was also the foundation of my conception of dwarves and gnomes.

We studied the legal codes, as well as the governmental structures, from Greece and Rome, up through the medieval and Renaissance periods. That, plus the anthropology classes I took as electives, gave me a feel for both the similarities and differences in how different human cultures view behavior, responsibility, guilt, innocence, and so on. If you’re making up fictional cultures, this offers more options than just living in your own culture… not everyone views these the same way. I knew that from growing up next to Mexico, of course, but studying it across a larger geographical area, and longer timespan, with more different cultures, was a big help. We also studied the economics and to some extent the technology of different locations and eras–how that impacted both behavior and the laws. For instance, the way that labor shortage during the various plagues in Europe forced changes in the laws.

The formal study of history also meant that I developed an eye for sources, making further study on my own more productive, including in fields far from history. I already had a taste for military history myself.

The biology degree, later, undergirds the shorter science fiction pieces, as well as the books (especially Remnant Population and The Speed of Dark.) It’s augmented by my experiences in EMS and working in a rural medical clinic. At the time, we took an array of science and medical journals, and I gulped those down every week, not always all of them, but substantial chunks. Its effect on fantasy shows up mostly in the worldbuilding end, because that, and the geology classes, helped me design the terrain and the climate, as well as the biology living on it.

VENTRELLA: You don’t shy away from politics on your Facebook page. Do you think starting authors who are trying to establish themselves should avoid such topics?

MOON: I think writers should understand the possible consequences of being open about their beliefs and then make their own decision. I know conventional PR wisdom says they should be silent their political views, but my experience as a novice writer was before social media, so I was already speaking out at conventions. I figured it was too late to be someone else on social media. You will have said something to someone somewhere, and besides, the writer’s voice will come through the work, so hiding who you are and trying not to upset anyone is… just not practical. Somebody’s going to hate you and somebody’s going to love you, no matter what you do. Honesty’s a lot simpler. Keep writing.

That being said, there are a lot of people who read hastily and carelessly and are eager to extend “I prefer mustard to mayonnaise” to “He hates mayonnaise and everyone who eats it and wants them all to die and be eaten by rabid dogs.” Nothing you can do about that. Keep writing.

VENTRELLA: You’ve had your own political controversies in the past that have kept you from being invited to certain conventions. Would you like to comment upon that? Have your views changed at all since that time?

MOON: Only to say what I’ve said since: convention organizers have a right to run their conventions as they see fit. Whether I, or any writer or fan, agrees or disagrees with their decision doesn’t matter. They’re the ones taking the financial risks.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a preference for science fiction or fantasy or does it just matter what mood you’re in?

MOON: Not so much on my mood, as the characters who crawl into my brain and demand that I write their stories. Some are clearly fantasy characters (they’re riding a horse and have a sword, or they’re mending the water wheel of the village mill) and others are clearly science fiction characters (they’re in a space ship, space station, conducting interstellar deals by ansible, or they’re crouched in a tight space trying to fix the household AI after a toddler poured syrup into the ventilation holes and the chips are all fried.)

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. 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?

MOON: Like every other human activity, excellence in writing is a mix of innate talent and experience and the work the individual puts into it. Anyone can learn to write a better story than they do now–the part of writing that can be fairly easily taught. Grammar, syntax, story structure. But the desire and ability to imagine so vividly that characters come alive, places feel real, and the deep logic of the story–the actions flowing from motivations that the reader accepts–that is at least partly innate. And then there’s the sheer stubborn grind of doing the work, over and over and over.

VENTRELLA: How important is a professional editor?

MOON: For me, very important. The outsider eye matters. However, a fit between writer and editor also matters. Editors (like the rest of us) have innate preferences in style, plot, pacing, characterization, and so on… and that’s fine. Writers also have innate bed-rock level preferences in the same areas. So if an editor’s instincts run opposite to a writer’s, then that editor cannot help that writer except at the most surface levels, spotting typos or contradictions. I’ve had mostly very good to excellent editors, but even so some were better “fits” than others. That’s inevitable.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

MOON: Very different from when I started, because publishing has changed so much. It is now much easier to do true self-publishing (not with a vanity press, but literally self-publishing, putting material out on the internet oneself.) They don’t have to have thousands of dollars to pay a vanity press, nor does the work have to be financially rewarding enough for a traditional publisher. For the writer with a following already, it’s a saving throw against an upheaval in a publishing house that orphans a writer and her books because “her” editor was let go, or when his older books have quit selling as well as the publisher wants, and rights can be reverted. So self-publishing is a legitimate and viable way for writers to put their work out.

It’s still harder for new writers to grow their name into producing income enough to live on, (everything’s harder for new writers!) but it’s possible.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best advice you would give to a starting writer that they probably haven’t already heard?

MOON: I think U.K LeGuin and Neil Gaiman, between them, have covered everything I could say.

VENTRELLA: What are your pet peeves when you read? What plot clichés or other problems really bug you?

MOON: Consistently sloppy, careless factual errors (conflating typhus and typhoid, impossibly fast travel by horse, movement of large armies across barren areas w/o mention of supply, cities that, given the technological level described, are not sustainable for the given population… the result of sloppy research. I’m up for any one or two imaginary-make-it-happen tech things in a story (FTL flight, without which space opera and serious military operations in interstellar space couldn’t exist), and invented stuff for which we have the basics, but not all the tech doing all the wonderful things and never malfunctioning. A flush toilet’s a simple thing and we don’t even have those so they never malfunction. Cultures that exist only to prop up the writer’s favorite political theory. Bad biology (no pollinating insects so “wind” pollinates those plants that require physical pollination. Artificial gravity surges to “pop” a baby out of a pregnant woman. Planets with functioning ecosystems but only one or two species of plant (or animal, or bird, or whatever.) Little planetoids with a breathable-to-humans atmosphere despite having no plants and earth-normal gravity in spite of being so small you can walk all the way around them in a few hours.

Plot and characterization clichés… some don’t bother me as much but smart people as physical wimps, and strong, muscled people as mentally less smart. Plots that require one side to make stupid mistakes without at least showing that the mistake arises out of deep characterization. Plots that require one side to be perfect in every way, every time, without at least showing the the character is actually unable to make mistakes.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

MOON: Readers are highly variable about that. Same way with “likeable” characters (and what does “likeable” mean to each reader? Not the same thing). Some get upset if the hero has flaws…others if the anti-hero has any soft spots in their heart (flaws from the anti- side). Readers want characters that they, individually, can relate to, and that changes even for one reader (including me) as the reader’s life changes and the reader amasses more experience. Books they used to love now feel flat, or dull, or impenetrable, the characters unrealistic or unimportant. So the writer writes what the writer wants to write–characters the writer wants to read about–and has to hope there are enough others of similar taste.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve heard people give?

MOON: Anything that starts with “You have to–” Whatever follows will be the worst advice for some writer.

VENTRELLA: What’s your next project?

MOON: I hope it will be the final “Vatta’s Peace” book, but it’s too early to tell whether it will stay alive for the duration–it’s just over 50 pages at the moment. It’s being shy and slow, as everything has been since the concussion last year. So I guess I do have less-heard advice for writers… avoid concussions. You don’t know which one will knock your storytelling apparatus to bits, and whether you can find all the bits and reassemble them. Recovery can be slow and scary.

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