The Bujold Nexus

SF World, China questions May 08

This is my draft of an interview done for my Chinese publisher in the city of Chengdu, Science Fiction World, in Spring of 2008. Interviewer and translator was Jenny Bao. It was to be translated and used in their PR, although no one has sent me a URL yet.

I met my Chinese editors very briefly at the Boston WorldCon a few years back, while dashing through the hallway to my next gig, and I admit my first thought was not, "They're Chinese!" but "They're so young!" SF World is working hard to bring the genre of written SF to a young Chinese audience, which may have some interesting results down the line as new Chinese writers in turn join the genre conversation and bring their own take to the concepts.

1, I learn that you have been working on the Miles series for more than twenty years. So what inspired you to start a world of Miles? Have you ever felt tired of the story of Miles and decided to diverte to other genres?

* Well, in the early 1980's I was broke, stuck at home with two little children in an economically depressed small town where I could not get a job. A friend of mine, Lillian Stewart (now) Carl, with whom I’d used to make up stories back in junior high school, had started writing again after she'd had her kids, and sold some short stories and a fantasy novel. So I thought it might be a way for me to make some money, too. I started out with no larger goal in view than to try to write my very first book ever (what became Shards of Honor, the tale of how Miles's parents met), and with no idea that it would grow over time into a series so large and successful.

Miles has been a very flexible character, but he doesn't stretch over every kind of story. Ethan of Athos (my third book) and Falling Free (my fourth) were both set in Miles's future universe, but not otherwise closely connected with him. I broke away from SF to write my first fantasy, The Spirit Ring, set in an alternate Renaissance Italy where magic worked, in the early 1990's. At the turn of the millennium, I left Miles and his universe altogether to write three books in what has come to be called the world of Chalion: The Curse of Chalion (which won the Mythopoeic Award, given by the Tolkien Society), Paladin of Souls (which won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards), and The Hallowed Hunt, all of which had settings inspired by European medieval history. In the past three years I have completed a tetrology, a 4-book story with the overall title of The Sharing Knife, which is set in a fantasy world inspired by Midwestern frontier America.

2, Did you take your son or a son of your friend as the model when creating Miles? I think Miles is so adorable. Also some of Miles' relatives are indeed impressive, such as Ivan and Aunt Alys, so did you take some of your own relatives as reference? Lady Cordelia is perhaps the greatest and coolest mother in the galaxy. What does she, as a character, mean to you? Is she a reflection of yourself, or a mother you wanna be? Or she resembles someone you once admired?

* I started writing the Vorkosigan series when my children were 1 and 4 years old, so no, my son was not a model for Miles. (He was, in a weird way, a model for Dubauer, Cordelia's brain-damaged lieutenant, since I rather imagined having him on their trek as like trying to take care of a 180-pound one-year-old.) Miles did come out of his parents' situation, though, since I knew from early on in Shards of Honor that Aral and Cordelia would have a handicapped son in Barrayar's militaristic, patriarchal culture. There is a little of the annoyance of my older brothers in the character of Ivan, I think.

Miles's sources include my reading about T.E. Lawrence, another short, brilliant soldier from history; from reading about young Winston Churchill; and from my own relationship with my rather daunting engineering professor father. Miles had a physical template in a handicapped hospital pharmacist I used to work with, back in my 20's before I had children. But Miles quickly became himself, growing through all his actions,

I did learn a lot about being a parent and a mother from my children as they grew, which helped develop my characters who were parents, like Cordelia and Lady Alys. I put elements of myself and my experiences and world-views into Cordelia -- indeed, there's a little of me in many of my characters -- but she is certainly not me -- she's much braver and more competent!

My own children are very opaque to me -- I never really know what they're thinking, and I'm not sure they have any idea what I'm thinking, either. So Cordelia's superior insight into her nearest and dearest is perhaps not very realistic, but I wish I had some of it.

3, Why does Sergeant Bothari have to die...I think his death is one of the reasons why Elena walked out of Miles' life...The Botharis are the favorite two characters of mine in the Vorkosigan Saga...

* Bothari was a strange and interesting character who grew along with the books, but in his place as Miles's mentor and, in a weird sense, surrogate father, he had to go as part of Miles's growing up. In fact, the very first scene I envisioned from The Warrior's Apprentice was the death of Bothari; the rest of the book grew around that seed crystal. He actually had posthumous character development, from my point of view, as I wrote Barrayar (the direct sequel to Shards) several books after The Warrior's Apprentice.

I think Elena would have walked out of Miles's life regardless, but the death of her controlling father made it easier for her to escape.

4, Do you think the space opera will prosper again, as someone said it's declining. Do you have any intention to write Post-Singularity space opera?

* Space opera goes in and out of fashion; it actually has enjoyed a recent renewal and surge of popularity in Britain and America. I've stayed away from the Singularity, first, because it hadn't yet been envisioned when I first started writing the Vorkosigan series, and I didn't want to clumsily stick it into a world not already built around it, and secondly because I don't quite believe in it. A lot of the writers who are very enthusiastic about the Singularity don't seem to me to have quite enough grip on biology, and how it fundamentally shapes our lives. (Not to mention economics. We are not, after all, going to get any possible future -- only the one people are willing to pay for.)

5, Shall we share your opinions on the commercialization of science fictions? If your novels were chosen to be adapted to films, comics or even video games, would you agree? We know that many film editions of novels have been criticized for ruining the original works. Will you still agree if you find the script isn't acceptable to you, or the original ideas have been mostly changed? Or would you like to involve yourself in the script writing, cast choosing, or game designing?

* I have learned enough about other media to know that they are as hard to learn how to do well as it is to learn how to write novels. I already know how to write novels, so I think I'll stick with that. If any of my works are picked up for adaptation in other media, I don't think I would be competent enough, nor have the time and energy, to involve myself. I am especially weak in gaming, which came along after I had leisure time to devote to it (kids, you know), and about which I know little.

The Warrior's Apprentice did once sell feature film rights, and got all the way to a script -- which was really bad and had nothing whatsoever to do with my original story, so I'm glad it was never produced. WA has also been picked up by a French comics company, Soliel, for adaptation as a graphic novel -- in French, a language I do not speak. I await the result with interest, though I expect it to be quite strange to me.

6, Have you ever watched Ronald D. Moore's version of Battlestar Galactica? Do you think that the presentation techniques of the new Battlestar Galactica somewhat resemble your writing style? If there is any chance the Miles series would be adapted to TV series or films, who do you expect to work as the director?

* I have never seen the new Battlestar Galactica..., so I can't answer this question. [You may wish to delete it.]

7, When will you conclude the Miles series?

* I expect the series to remain open-ended for some time. Now that The Sharing Knife fantasy tetrology is finished, I have a contract with my long-time American SF publisher Baen Books to write another Miles adventure for them. It doesn't have a title yet. Its start has been delayed by a book tour for Passage, the third Sharing Knife book, which was in my schedule -- and by a perforated appendix, which very much was not. I'm home recovering from surgery now, but it will be a while before I'm up to speed again. I've pretty much lost all of May for writing.

As of now, I have only one chapter done, so I don't expect the new Miles book to be finished in manuscript till this time next year, and that only if I can fight off all travel invitations besides Worldcon in Denver, at which I am to be Writer Guest of Honor -- a great honor indeed -- and a trip to Barcelona in November. As I have aged, travel has become much more tiring for me, and it eats writing time and energy like crazy. People can have me in person, or they can have my books -- they can't have both, unfortunately.

8, Among the fellow science fiction or fantasy writers, or in the mainstream literature field, who wins your most admiration?

[Skipping this question due to fatigue. Delete also.]

9, Are you familiar with any science fiction or fantasy writer in Asia or in China? Have you watched The Forbidden Kingdom, the film starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li? If you have, do you have any comments? The film is supposed to be based on the Chinese classic fantasy Journey to the West, but it has been criticized for the script's massive and quite bad changes to the original work. So the Chinese audience here mostly dislike it.

* Heh. Is this anything like the arguments between the Tolkien book purists and the enthusiasts for Peter's Jackson's film of The Lord of the Rings? If so, I can imagine it easily.

Co-incidentally, I just saw The Forbidden Kingdom out in San Francisco a few weeks ago, when I was on my book tour for Passage. I hadn't seen any previews, so I had no expectations whatsoever going in, except that anything with Jackie Chan in it was likely to be a fun way to fill an evening, and indeed it was.

Most Americans know little to nothing about authentic Chinese mythology, legend, history, or literature, so anything at all that starts to present this unfamiliar culture to us is all to the good, I think. Something that folks enjoy, so that they will come back later for more, is even better. The Forbidden Kingdom, with its young American protagonist, was obviously tailor-made to bridge the culture gap, rather in the same way that Bride and Prejudice brought Bollywood to the attention of a wider audience. Yes, it was a simple and silly Kung Fu movie, with just enough plot to string the fight scenes together, but the comic elements made it very accessible.

By chance, I happened to have read an abridged version (one volume) of Wu Ch'eng-en's Journey to the West, translated by American scholar Arthur Waley, just last winter. So I was very amused just recognizing the elements of the original story that did survive into the film. (Although I don't think I would have gotten any of the political/cultural in-jokes in the film about Taoism versus Buddhism versus Confucianism without having read the book first.) I actually picked up the Waley book (I'd read his translation of The Tale of Genji much earlier in my life) as a result of seeing a Japanese animation called Saiyuki, a bizarre confection even less closely related to the original Journey than the Jackie Chan film. Because it was obvious the anime producers were taking wild liberties with the original, I became quite curious about what that original might really be, and so tracked back. So even bad films can have good results, if they make people curious.

I also had chanced to watch Jackie Chan's first big hit, Drunken Master, last winter on DVD, so I also appreciated the in-joke of Jackie making the transition from student to master in the recent film. God, we're all getting old...

My very first oblique brush with Chinese literature, back in my 20's, was through reading the Judge Dee mysteries written by Dutch Sinologist and diplomat Robert Van Gulik, which I found delightful and alien -- almost like reading science fiction. (I am of course entirely at the mercy of the translators for access to any literature that is not in English.) Van Gulik's first book, Dee Goong An, was as I understand it pretty much a direct translation of a 400-year-old Chinese original. At the time, I hadn't even known China had novels 400 years ago, so this was all to the good.

If anyone does make a more authentic film version of Journey to the West for the international market, the success of simpler versions like The Forbidden Kingdom will help pave the way and generate interest, so I think it's doing good work. Indeed, break-out films like (first) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pave the way for yet more, like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and with each one, more of a picture of China can be built up in people's minds, and so what was alien and perhaps frightening becomes natural and familiar. More people watch films than read books -- alas -- but the new generation of modern Chinese films is opening a big picture window in what used to be, for most Americans, a blank wall.

I have to ask, though -- are all Chinese and Japanese films and TV shows so sexist? The poor women characters never seem to be allowed to win!

10, Do you have any special writing habits, such as writing only at night?

* I don't have a “typical writing day.” Nonetheless...

I use a sort of rolling-outline technique, largely as a memory aid, and work forward a small section at a time, because that's all my brain will hold. I will start to work up ideas for a story from all sorts of sources -- other reading, history, film, television, my own life experiences, debates with friends about ideas or other books. When my eyes or brain burn out on reading, I'm quite fond of all the non-fiction DVDs I can get from the local library, science and travel and history. At some point, all this will spark or clot into notions for a character or characters, their world, and the opening situation, and sometimes but not always a dim idea of the ending. I will start jotting notes in pencil in a loose-leaf binder. By the time I have about 40 or 50 pages of these, I will start to see how the novel should begin.

I then make a broad section outline, up to what I call “the event horizon”, which is how far I can see to write till I have to stop and make up some more. This is usually a chapter or three. I'll get a mental picture of what scenes should go in the next chapter, and push them around till they slot into sequence. I then pull out the next scene and outline it closely, almost a messy sort of first draft. I choreograph dialogue especially carefully. Then I take these notes to my computer and type up the actual scene. Lather, rinse, repeat till I get to the end of the chapter and, my brain now purged and with room to hold more, I pop back up to the next level to outline again. Every scene I write has the potential of changing what comes next, either by a character doing something unexpected or by my clearer look at the material as it's finally pinned to the page, so I re-outline constantly.

Making up the story and writing down the story are, for me, two separate activities calling for two different states of mind. Creation needs relaxation; composition is intensely focused. I do the making up part away from the computer, either while taking my walks or otherwise busying myself, or, when I get to the note-making or outlining stage, in another room. I do not compose at the computer, although I do edit on the fly, and the odd better ideas for a bit of dialogue or description do often pop out while I'm typing. Sometimes, they're sufficiently strong that they derail what I'd planned and I have to stop typing and go away and re-outline; sometimes they're just a bonus, an unexpected Good Bit, and slot right in.

I don't write a certain set number of pages or words a day. Either I'll have nothing outlined, or what I have outlined will be unsatisfactory and I'll be stalled -- or doing invisible work, sometimes even invisible to me -- or I'll have a fresh outline and be racing ahead to get it onto the page. I generally write a chapter in a few days, then go fallow for several days -- or, in a sticky bit or when interrupted by travel, several weeks -- then have another burst. I figure an average of two chapters a month for minimum professional production, more if I can get them, but even that is irregular.

I do most of my writing either in the late morning, or the late evening. Late afternoon tends to be a physiological down-time for me.

11, Do you favor some animals, such as horses or cats? Do you have any pets?

* I love horses and cats -- I had a pony when I was a child -- but I don't have any pets at the moment, after the three cats I'd had all aged and died. I'm not much of a dog person -- dogs are very demanding, almost like children. My children, too, have grown up and moved out, so I am enjoying my “empty nest”, and I especially like having full control of my own time for almost the first time in my life.

12, The Miles fans in China are so sorry that you couldn't attend the 2007 International SF/Fantasy Conference in Chengdu. So do you have any plan to pay a trip to China in the coming years? Mr. Neil Gaiman has developed a great interest in Monkey (the hero of the Journey to the West) since his last visit, and recently he expressed the wish to come back to China again to investigate the Monkey. If you come to China, you are surely to be warmly welcomed by the Chinese readers.

* I'll just bet Neil liked the Monkey stories! He is something of a neighbor of mine, as he also resides here in the Upper Midwest. I'll have to ask him about it, next time our paths cross.

I am, at the moment, desperately trying to limit travel in favor of writing, because I can't do both at the same time. Nevertheless, the new China is starting to intrigue me very much, especially as my new publishing connections, and the increased e-mail communication from Chinese fans, begin open it up and make it personal to me. So: someday maybe, but not soon. Too many people are impatiently awaiting the next Miles book, so badly delayed, including me!

13, To conclude this interview, we'd appreciate it if you could express some advice for the young writers who wanna devote themselves to science-fiction writing? And could you say a few words to all the Miles fans in China.

* I cannot even imagine what the market might be like for science fiction in China; I still marvel that there even is one. Still less am I qualified to tell people how to write in Chinese, for heaven's sake, of which I do not speak a word, but which I know has its own traditions and structures. And yet, Miles seems able to leap the gap.

I suppose there is general advice to all aspiring writers: read everything, learn history, learn about science, try lots of physical experiences, and travel as you can, because from these personal, visceral memories will come the telling details that you could never find in books alone. First-hand memoirs are always more useful to a writer than general histories, because they, too, contain the wonderful details that you never could have made up.

I remain amazed that my work has found an audience in China, something I could not have imagined when I first set pencil to paper, and Aral and Cordelia on their trek across that alien planet, in my first novel way back in 1982. I am very grateful to be living in this future, even if I had to do my time-traveling the hard way.

© 2008 by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Last updated: October 19th 2008