Tuesday, October 4, 2016

SF/F/H Author Interview: Wendy Wagner

Garrett and Wendy at Westercon 2016
Wendy Wagner is the managing editor at Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines, as well as a fast-emerging novelist. Her newest book, Starspawn, is a Pathfinder Tale novel that continues the adventures of the ex-pirate-extraordinaire Jendara, who readers first met in Skinwalkers. Walker also has a new, unrelated novel coming out from Angry Robot books in the summer of 2017, called An Oath of Dogs.

Wendy was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview back in 2013, but a lot has happened since then. In addition, to the new books, she’s taken part in the release of a series of special issues from Lightspeed and Nightmare that feature underrepresented voices in the genre. And of less import to the world at large, but important to me, she was also kind enough to write a blurb for my newest novel, Souldrifter.

All things considered, I figured it was hi-time we caught up, and once again she was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about her new books, her influences, promoting diversity in SF/F, and maybe travelling to Mars…

GC: First of all, congrats on the release of Starspawn. It's been out for a little over a month now. How does it feel to have your second novel out there, and how’s the reception been so far from readers?

WW: Thank you! People really seem to be enjoying the book. It's a much more complicated plot—per request of the Pathfinder development team—with a lot more characters and creatures. I was a little worried to go from writing what was basically a straight sword-and-sorcery adventure to producing something that was still S&S, but with a Lovecraftian flavor. I was really worried about getting the balance right. But at least one reviewer told me it was "Reese's peanut butter cup of horror and fantasy."

GC: Ha, that's about as good of a compliment as you could ask for.

WW: That's what I thought!

GC: So you mentioned the new book has a Lovecraftian component, and I know you're a fan of the Cthulhu mythos. Did you feel like you needed to stay true to the mythos in any sort of way, or did you just use it as an inspiration and take it in your own direction?

WW: Well, Pathfinder has its own take on the Cthulhu mythos that's a little more adventure-oriented and less cosmic horror-tasting. For this project, I mostly needed to make sure that I stayed true to their vision of the mythos. Of course, I did want to add a little of Lovecraftian dread and vastness to my project, since that's something I love about the Mythos. I think the book progresses from a feeling of traditional adventure to an atmosphere of adventure in the face of cosmic terror. I feel pretty good about the way the end worked out!

GC: That's awesome. I know for me, writing a sequel was a much more streamlined process than writing the first book in the series. Was it the same for you? Did you find that the process went faster or was anyway easier with book two, seeing as you’d already gotten to know Jendara and the Pathfinder universe really well?

WW: Oh, yes! This book took much less time to write than the first book. I already knew Jendara a little bit—since I'd written the first short story about her—when I wrote Skinwalkers, but I was still pretty new to the Pathfinder world. Between writing the two books, I wrote some other short stories for Pathfinder, did a little freelance copy editing for them, and spent about six months playing a campaign. I learned so much about how the game worked between the two books. It really helped me make the magic and the fighting work out much better.

GC: Glad to hear round two went faster for you. Are there any more adventures in store for Jendara, or any other projects you’ve got lined up with Pathfinder?

WW: I'm currently in between projects for Pathfinder. I have a short story coming out later this year in a volume of their new Lovecraft-inspired adventure path, but after that, my calendar is wide open. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they still like me!

GC: Well, I don't see how they couldn't! Okay, so let’s switch gears and talk about your forthcoming novel, An Oath of Dogs, due out from Angry Robot in Summer 2017. You already did a great guest post at Barnes & Noble about how writing your own novel was different than writing in a shared world, so I won’t retread that. Instead, tell us about the timeline for writing An Oath of Dogs and Starspawn. Was there an overlap where you working on both at the same time?

WW: There was! I actually got the seed idea for An Oath of Dogs back when I was outlining Skinwalkers! I was reading Dan Simmons' novel A Winter Haunting, which talks a lot about the rather complicated relationship people have with dogs, and I knew I wanted to do something with it. So I put that on the back burner for a while, just thinking about where I was going to take that idea. I even thought it was a short story for a while.

It sat on the back burner for a long time. I wrote Skinwalkers and another novel (a mid-grade fantasy project that may or may not ever work), and then I finally got up the nerve to start working on An Oath of Dogs. It had metamorphosed into this big, complicated thing in my head, and it took a long time to sort it out into a real book.

By the time I was actually ready to start writing, I was already under contract for Starspawn. While Starspawn was a tremendously enjoyable book to write, I also resented every day it took me to produce it, because I was dying to get back to An Oath of Dogs.

GC: So you didn't try to write both at the same time?

WW: I had about 80 days to put together the first draft of Starspawn, and of course, I was also overseeing a lot of big projects for the magazines I work for (Lightspeed and Nightmare). I just didn't have enough brainpower to do it all at once.

GC: I imagine not. 80 days is fast to kick out a first draft! Well done.

WW: Yeah, our original target publication date for Starspawn was last winter. But the publication calendar for the Pathfinder novels was significantly rejiggered, pushing it back to this summer. I could have taken a ton more time writing that book!

GC: From reading the cover blurb for An Oath of Dogs, it looks you’re tackling some big issues. What sort of real life influences did you draw upon for this book?

WW: I grew up in southern Oregon in the late '80s and '90s. The economy down there was heavily dependent on the timber industry. During that time, there was a lot of fighting between environmental organizations trying to protect dwindling forest habitat and people eager to protect timber jobs. It was an incredibly tense, scary time to live down there—they called it the "timber wars." There was actual violence, with people blowing up logging sites and other people threatening to shoot them, and activists getting car-bombed. And of course, as all of this was going on, timber companies were shipping millions of board feet of lumber to Japan while they tried to manipulate the Clinton administration into giving them more land to log.

All of this left a pretty strong impression on me. The history of Oregon is rife with the story of big industry stripping natural resources from communities and siphoning the profits into distant places. It's a colonial legacy, and this book is all about colonialism.

GC: Yeah, I remember hearing about a lot that growing up down in California. It sounds fascinating. I can't see where you took those ideas in the novel.

WW: Oh! The book is set in a timber town, but on another planet. And the corporation that my character works for is very, very shady. The book is just jam-packed with forests and loggers and ecoterrorists!

GC: Besides the Dan Simmons book you mentioned, were there any other books or authors who directly influenced An Oath of Dogs?

WW: To be honest, the biggest influences on this book were really films and TV. Another early influence on the book's direction was Vampire Hunter: Bloodlust. There's this terrific atmosphere to that movie. Everyone there is afraid of vampires, so everything's decked out with crosses, and everything shuts up after dark. The town in An Oath of Dogs is very similar—they've really come to fear these wild dogs that torment the town, and they've developed some odd coping mechanisms.

GC: Nice! I haven't seen that movie. I'll have to check it out.

WW: I've only read a little of the manga, and it's cool, too.

GC: Okay, so switching gears again...As you’re well aware, there’s been a lot of turmoil in the SF/F field about making our field more inclusive. As a woman who not only writes, but is managing editor at two of the field’s top mags, do you feel any extra pressure to be an advocate or champion for underrepresented voices?

Lightspeed Magazine, June 2015 (Queers Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue) by [Magazine, Lightspeed, McGuire, Seanan, Chu, John, Stufflebeam, Bonnie Jo, Brenchley, Chaz, Lemberg, Rose, Ryman, Geoff, El-Mohtar, Amal, Bigelow, Susan Jane, Hopkinson, Nalo]WW: Of course SF/F needs to be more inclusive! All of publishing needs to be more inclusive! I've been so lucky to work at Lightspeed while we've been working on the Destroy series—we've spotlighted women in SF/F/H, queers in SF/F/H, and now people of color. I've gotten to hear so many stories about just how much the field can suck. It's hard to believe people miss out on so much great talent simply because publishing focuses everything through this white, male, upper middle class lens.

I'm just another white middle class lady, so my voice isn't an especially uncommon one in the field. But I feel like I have a responsibility to include people of all races and sexuality and ability in my work. For one, it's more representative of the real world, which is important. And for another, I know how important it is for people to see themselves represented in the genre. I also think it's really important to do a good job writing those characters.

But I think that's pretty much everyone's job in all genres. If you're not doing it, you're not doing a very good job capturing the human condition.

GC: Well said. When you and I last met, it was at Westercon a few months back, and I attended a panel where an editor from a big publishing house said that representation in fiction doesn't really change anything. I couldn't believe it. And none of the other panelist called him on it! I've heard dozens of firsthand testimonials from past students of mine who've talked about what it meant to them when they first encountered an author or character who was the same as them.

WW: RIGHT??? I wish I could give that editor a copy of the personal essays from the three Destroy SF issues. Representation was a major theme for all three populations. Like this year, I can't tell you how many women were overjoyed to watch the new Ghostbusters. It was so amazing just to see *normal* women on screen kicking butt. I was so happy after that movie that I got teary.

GC: I'm in full agreement! Okay, let's lighten it up with the speed round. Ready?

WW: Yay!

GC: You Tweeted a while back that one of your characters is a vegan botanist/beer enthusiast and has a lot in common with you. Does that mean you only drink vegan beers, and if so, any big name beers we should watch out for that aren't vegan?

WW: I'm not actually a vegan—my daughter is, so I mostly eat vegan, although I am a vegetarian. But I do love beer! And, like my character, I identify as bisexual. But some big news about beer is that Guinness is going vegan by the end of the year! They've always used isinglass (from fish bladders) as a filtration material, but they're switching to a vegan filtration system.

GC: Glad to hear that about Guinness. I’m not a vegetarian, but I certainly don’t need fish in my beer, and I'm sure fish are glad to not be put in beer. What's your favorite beer?

WW: I really love Fort George brewing. Their Vortex IPA is just delicious.

GC: How about your favorite thing to grow in the garden?

WW: Broccoli! It's a pretty big plant, and it goes through all these awkward phases before it looks like what you buy at the grocery store. I feel like a champ when I get a big head of broccoli out of my garden.

GC: Your nemesis in the garden?

WW: Powder mildew. Grr!

GC: Yeah, I hate that stuff. My poor squash plant...

WW: It even got to the swiss chard this year!

GC: Punk ass powder mold! But back to the speed round…One recommendation for readers. It can be a book, movie, TV show, game, whatever.

WW: I just read the best book! It's called Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand. (It's about ten years old.) It's a series of interviews with different members of this 1970s folk rock band about the month they spent at this mysterious mansion in the British countryside. It's very magical, very atmospheric, and very cool. (It's fiction, in case I didn't make that clear.)

GC: Sounds sweet. I'll have to check it out. All right, last one. SpaceX says they'll send people to Mars within the next decade. If you could take your family with you, would you do it? And what would be your stipulation to Elon Musk? A guaranteed steady supply of coffee?

WW: Absolutely! It would be a dream come true to be a Martian colonist. But the only way I'd be able to convince my husband to go would be if we could bring our entire board game collection.

GC: Sounds fair to me!

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