Updated on mai 16, 2018
Interview with Charlie Jane Anders (VO)
I wanted to ask some questions to Charlie Jane Anders to go along with the publication of « All the birds in the sky » in french today. Thanks again to Thibaud Eliroff and Marie Foache from J’ai lu to pass my request on, and thanks again to Charlie Jane Anders to take the time to answer my questions.
Could you please introduce yourself to the french readers who don’t know you yet? Where are you from, what was your career before writing full time ?
Sure. I’m Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky and another novel coming soon, The City in the Middle of the Night. I used to help edit a website called io9.com about science fiction, futurism and science. And I organize and host a monthly reading series in San Francisco called Writers With Drinks, where I try to bring together as many genres and communities as I can in one event. I also occasionally grow big scaly wings like a dragon and fly around scaring people.
I talked about it in my review, I’ve been a faithful reader of IO9 for a few years now, and I thank you for making me discover a bunch of great writers (and may I ask you to also thank Annalee Newitz for making me read Ayize Jama-Everett among others ?)….do you miss writing for IO9? Did your work at IO9 changed your way of writing between Choir boy and All the birds ?
Thanks so much for reading io9! It means a lot to me. It’s hard to believe I’ve been away from there for two years already. I had so much fun writing about every possible topic involving science fiction and the future and everything, while I was there. It was a total blast. To a large extent, I’m having that same kind of fun now, making a podcast with io9 founder Annalee Newitz called « Our Opinions Are Correct » where we geek out about the meaning of science fiction today. Working at io9 had a huge impact on my fiction writing, because I got to spend so much time thinking about why stories work, or why they don’t work, and what these stories actually mean. It was like getting paid to go to grad school. I wrote four other novels between Choir Boy and All the Birds in the Sky, though none of them appeared in print. (One of them, Rock Manning Goes For Broke, is coming out as a novella soon from Subterranean Press.)
You love sci-fi and fantasy, it’s blatant when you read All the birds, but do you read crime books too?
I love crime fiction. My favorites range from Dorothy Sayers to Raymond Chandler to Ross MacDonald to Chester Himes. I think anyone who wants to write in one particular genre should try to expose themselves to as many different genres as possible. Crime fiction has a lot to teach us about structuring plot and story, and also about weaving characters and themes into the exploration of a particular mystery.
You wrote a lot of short stories or novellas before « Choir boy » and « All the birds in the sky », do you think it’s a prerequisite for any new writer before writing the famous first novel?
There’s no one path to success as a writer. Some people write tons of short stories, but other people don’t. It’s totally fine either way. I learned a lot from writing short stories, especially about just coming up with a beginning, middle and end that make sense. That’s a hard thing to do at any length, and practice can be valuable.
What does the short form mean to you, does it allow you to explore or experiment more than with a novel?
It’s definitely true that you can try more weird and daring things in short fiction than in novels. For one thing, you don’t have to sustain it as long. For another, nobody’s going to put out just this one story in a printed book with your name on the cover, for people to judge you by. Short stories are often read in places where they’re surrounded by other stories by other authors, so everybody can kind of do their own thing. I really have fun writing short fiction and I’m sad to be taking a break from it to try and get more novels finished.
« Choir boy » wasn’t a genre novel per se, but there was some kind of magical realism, can I ask you how you would introduce this novel and where did the inspiration for it come from? Would you like to write another novel that won’t be 100% genre novel at some point in the future ?
I have a really hard time categorizing Choir Boy, and it’s hard to talk about after all this time. It’s sort of a book about what happens when you try to prevent your life from changing — you can’t stop change, but sometimes instead of the change you were dreading, you can bring about a different kind of change instead. I think if I was writing that book today, it would be much clearer that Berry, the main character, is non-binary. One of my unpublished novels is also in that same hard-to-categorize kinda-literary space. I may come back to it at some point.
Now let’s talk about « All the birds in the sky », did you expect such humongous success and so much positive reviews when it came out ? It’s rare to be nominated for the Nebula, Locus and the Hugo with a first genre novel…and you won two out of three..
Ha thanks! Of course you never expect anything like that to happen when you write a book. I was terrified a lot of people would really hate it because of the weird games it plays with narrative, and the silliness of the humor. I have been so incredibly gratified that people have responded to it the way they have.
How did you come up with the idea of the book? Where do Patricia and Laurence come from?
I originally came up with this idea of telling the story of a witch and a mad scientist, and it just seized control over my brain. It seemed like such a fun concept. At first, it was going to be a zany comedy in which the witch and the mad scientist would be rivals, maybe both trying to get the same thing and one-upping each other. Raygun vs. spellbook, flying carpet vs. spaceship, etc. etc. But over time, I realized it was more interesting as the story of the relationship between people who come from two different worlds.
How did you write, did you have a plan, or some kind of time line you followed, or are you more of a automatic writing author ?
I made up a lot of it as I went along, but also kept questioning over and over where this was going, and what the point of it all was, and what my endgame might be. And once I had a solid second draft, I went back and outlined it over and over.
Were you more like Patricia or Laurence when you were young ? Is there a little of you in any character of the novel ? One of my favourite part is when they imagine the lives of some people just by looking at the shoes by the way, it almost feels like a real memory.
That was a scene that I just came up with randomly, and it was so much fun to write. I spent a lot of time during the writing of this book thinking about being 13 or 14 years old, and how terrible that time in my life was. It’s a brutal horrible stage in a lot of people’s lives, with raging hormones and out-of-control cliquishness and insane pressure.
In the novel, you talked about some big ecological disasters, the end of the world is nigh, but the novel is never dark or depressing, on the contrary, it’s full of humor, hope and kindness, we could almost call it a feelgood novel. Was it what you were looking for since the beginning ?
I think it’s important to write about our fears, but try to do so in a constructive way. Writing about ecological catastrophes and apocalypses is an optimistic act, because it means there’s some value in facing up to them and hopefully working to prevent them. In this case, the environmental stuff came out of the clash between nature and technology that was at the heart of the novel, but I wasn’t interested in creating a simplistic morality tale. I wanted to show all of the contours of the problem, and give people hope that we could still do something.
I read that the novel was supposed to be a bit more like a pastiche, Patricia more like a Harry Potter, and Laurence more like a boy genius, can you tell us more about it, and why you changed your mind ?
The characters themselves were never going to be pastiches as such, but I already talked about how it was originally more of a zany comedy. I did experiment with putting in a lot more genre tropes, just for the fun of it, but they quickly became boring because there wasn’t any point to them. They were just extra clutter.
One other thing I loved in this novel it’s how you played with a lot of tropes of the genre. For example how Patricia and Laurence both think at some point they are some kind of a chosen one who would save mankind, or the fact that there are only a few chapters taking place in Etisley Maze, you didn’t create some new version of Poudlard or Brakebills…or the fact that there is no real antagonist, no real big villain, except maybe Theodolphus Rose… (By the way, what a great name!) Can you talk about him, his arc is almost essential to Patricia’s and Laurence’s evolution. How would you introduce him, where did the inspiration come from for the Nameless Order ?
Theodolphus Rose kind of emerged naturally from the progress of the book, but he was also a lot of fun to write. I feel like he represents a lot of the terrible, often abusive, authority figures who make already bad situations worse in junior high school. He’s one of my favorite characters in the book — and the net effect of everything he does is actually to push Patricia and Laurence to embrace their power.
Peregrine (another great name), the artificial intelligence, is also great, how did you create it, did you research AI a lot ? Does the story you wanted to tell is finished ? Or is there any chance in the future for you to come back to this universe and those characters ?
I love Peregrine, and really enjoyed trying to come up with an AI character that felt like one I hadn’t already seen before. I love reading about AI and thinking about how it would work, and of course we covered the topic constantly on io9. There’s always a chance I’ll write more about this world and these characters, but you never know I guess.
I read that you started a young adult trilogy for Tor, and that those books might be more ambitious than All the birds in the sky, can you tell us more about it ?
The young adult trilogy is still in the pipeline, but I’m having so much fun writing it so far. It’s straight-up science fiction, without any magic. It’s an interesting change to write about 16-year-olds, who have very different problems and concerns than most 13-year-olds.
Speaking of young adult litterature, in France a lot of editors publish some authors in young adult collections as soon as the main characters of their books are teenagers, but there are some books like « Little brother », « Pirate cinema » or « For the win » by Cory Doctorow, or the « Binti trilogy », « Akata witch » and « Akata warrior » by Nnedi Okorafor that could interest grown-ups as well. What is your take on young adult litterature in the USA ?
It’s been just amazing to see how mainstream YA has become, among both teens and adults. It really feels like YA books are filling the place that used to be occupied by adventure novels and fun escapist fiction — but also asking some of the tough questions about adulthood and what it means to be a good person in a different way than adult books can.
In the 2000s, some people thought sci-fi was dead, or dying, but since a few years we saw a new generation of authors writing some really great books with new themes or new ways of telling a story like you, Ann Leckie, N K Jemisin, Mishell Baker, Lila Bowen, Annalee Newitz, Nnedi Okorafor, Catherynne Valente, Ada Palmer, Madeline Ashby, and more…(same thing in France in my opinion, more young writers are published), what is your take on sci-fi in the USA today ?
I’m just so excited to see science fiction taking on a new lease on life. Science and technology are evolving so quickly that it makes all kinds of sense that we’re writing stories about them now. Plus science fiction in all its forms is just a wonderful thrillride and a joy to read and write. And yes, there are so many brilliant authors bursting on the scene these days!
The nominated for the Hugo awards have been announced recently, fortunately there isn’t any problems with the puppies this year. What do you think about it ?
It’s such an amazing slate and I’m so incredibly proud of all my fellow authors who are creating such brave, challenging, fascinating work right now. This is a wonderful time to be reading, or writing, science fiction and fantasy.
Charlie Jane Anders’ twitter page
Charlie Jane Anders on Fantastic Fiction