STANDING NAKED ON THE FRONT LAWN
An Interview with Author Julie E. Czerneda
By Mark Leslie Lefebvre for Chapters.ca
Julie E. Czerneda is certainly a woman on the go. With four novels (most recently Changing Vision from DAW Books), dozens of textbooks, a teacherís guide to teaching Science Fiction (No Limits from Trifolium Books Inc) and a double Award-Winning anthology (Packing Fraction illustrator Larry Stewart won an Aurora for Artistic Achievement. Contributor Robert J. Sawyer win an Aurora for Best Short Form English) under her belt, an impending anthology series and a contract with DAW for several more novels, itís amazing that Czerneda could even spare the time to conduct an interview.
But the good news is that she did, in early September of 2000.
CHAPTERS.CA: Your latest novel, Changing Vision takes place fifty-odd years after the end of Beholderís Eye. Was bridging that gap for the reader difficult when you tried to continue the storyline?
CZERNEDA: No, not really. As humans, we have a clear understanding of what time involves in terms of family and our own maturity. I could be confident readers would be able fill in many of the details of Paulís life for themselves from the clues I provided. At the same time, I could contrast Esenís experience of the same amount of time. If youíve already lived 500 years and could well live several millennia, whatís 50 more? It allowed me to immediately highlight the crux of their differences while showing the depth of their relationship.
CHAPTERS.CA: How far do you plan on pursuing "Esenís Web?"
CZERNEDA: Far! DAW Books has bought Hidden In Sight, which will continue Esen and Paulís story from very soon after the end of Changing Vision. At this point, I see that book as wrapping up a trilogy. Having said that, I love writing about Esen and have several other stories in mind for her. I suspect thereíll be more as long as readers and my publisher are interested.
CHAPTERS.CA: You are simultaneously writing two different series while working on at least one stand alone forthcoming novel. Is there any inherent difficulty jumping back and forth between them?
CZERNEDA: Avoiding overlap between the series. Thatís about the only thing. The setting of both series is recognizably similar, because I like writing in it: a far future, with starships and a multitude of alien species co-existing more-or-less peacefully. I view the events in each series as taking place separated by a few years and quite a bit of distance. This means I can use some alien species in both, but not all. I also need to keep an eye on technology and politics. My "big picture" includes them both, but again, there have to be distinctions.
It helps that the tone and characters of the series are very different. The Trade Pact is about power and evolution, about coexistence and relationships between differing cultures. The scope is larger, as are the consequences. The Web Shifters, Esenís books, are about wonder and curiosity, survival and friendship, all tightly focused on one character.
As you can imagine, keeping the standalone, In the Company of Others, distinct is very straightforward. Its setting is the not-too-distant future, humans have not yet met other intelligent species, and the entire story is something quite different for me as well. Iím looking forward to readersí reactions.
CHAPTERS.CA: Iíve heard that your first novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger, sat in a secret drawer for over a decade.
CZERNEDA: If left up to me, that book Ė and others Ė might still be in the drawer! Iíve been writing for my own entertainment since I was about eleven and letting anyone else read my fiction was not part of my career plans, believe me. My family, especially my husband, encouraged my writing and hinted about sending my work out Ė I think they had much greater expectations for me than I had for myself. But I remained pretty convinced that my stories were private.
CHAPTERS.CA: So what changed that?
CZERNEDA: The person who changed that conviction was my editor. I had switched from teaching biology to writing high school textbooks. My editor, when she realized I had novels sitting around the house, was flabbergasted. What was I thinking? I was a professional author! Why wasnít I marketing my fiction as well? The only argument I could raise against that logic was the suspicion Ė abundantly verified since Ė that having others read my fiction would be like standing naked on the front lawn. The non-fiction was based on my skill and training. The fiction? Pure dreaming. Still, a lack of courage was hardly a good reason not to try. And Iíve been happy I did.
CHAPTERS.CA: When I say the words "Canadian Science Fiction" what does that conjure up in your mind?
CZERNEDA: Complex, personal, unpredictable. We have an amazing variety of science fiction being written by Canadians and yet those seem common threads. There is a Canadian voice in SF, a voice that explores alternatives and compromises, that delves into consequence as well as wonder.
CHAPTERS.CA: Is Canadian SF ostracized or cut off from the rest of literature?
CZERNEDA: Is SF ostracized within literary circles in Canada? Yes, in the sense that there are many people convinced that they act to promote Canadian literature who would never list a science fiction or fantasy novel among those works. When you consider that some of the finest speculative fiction in the world today is being written by Canadians, itís very insulting. Then, thereís that Canadian habit of "if itís successful or popular or fun, it canít be any good." Somethingís wrong with that attitude, especially when as a result, Canadian authors who are bestsellers here and abroad arenít routinely reviewed by major media, whereas other authors receive that attention without question.
I think attitudes are changing across the board, so while I see this as a current and past problem, Iím optimistic itís on the wane. You can only ignore critical acclaim from around the world so long. And SF as a genre is permeating our lives more and more. While itís not everyoneís first choice to read, aspects of SF are becoming part of our culture and part of how we are learning to deal with the changes in that culture. Literature, at its best, offers us that window on ourselves. Our present and future world needs the window of SF.
CHAPTERS.CA: Is it more difficult for a woman working in this genre?
CZERNEDA: No. My sex has not been a barrier in any sense to my work as a biologist and it has not been a factor in my writing career either. Itís the quality of storytelling that gains or loses readership. So far, people of all types seem to be enjoying my science fiction.
CHAPTERS.CA: What would you consider to be the most overused plot device in the speculative genres?
CZERNEDA: War in space. Vast military organizations planning to take over the universe. Which could be because Iím not interested in those features in a plot. Hmm. There are many plots which come around again and again, but a new author can make them fresh and new for readers. I suppose one thing Iíve seen too often is the main character portrayed as terribly abused as a child or teenager, especially if the author feels it necessary to make this five chapters of descriptive angst for all concerned. There are other starting points to a believable, moving journey for a protagonist.
CHAPTERS.CA: Is there any subject youíve encountered in your writing that youíve purposely steered away from?
CZERNEDA: Subject? Not that I can think of at the moment. There are things that donít attract me as a reader, so they donít attract me as a writer either. Horror is one. There are approaches I avoid. For one thing, I donít like the "victim mentality." My characters end up in peril, but itís not because they were silly enough to go into the dark basements we all know are dangerous. I also find I avoid having characters overcoming some traumatic event in their lives, at least as major motivation. I enjoy writing about sane, ordinary individuals who reach into themselves for the extraordinary when they must. I also find it more interesting to have antagonists who are in conflict with my heroes not because they are evil-minded or insane dictators, but because they believe they are doing what is best for their species or group Ė or themselves.
CHAPTERS.CA: What are your feelings on the relationship between the author and the reader? What about the author and the fan?
CZERNEDA: I very carefully avoid using the word fan when I talk about the people who read my work and enjoy it enough to contact me. I have a reason beyond feeling quite rightly humble. Itís because I donít feel they are praising me. They have found something in my characters, my worlds, in the words themselves perhaps, that pleases them. The work, rather than the person. My reasoning is simple: the moment a book is in a readerís hands, it belongs to the reader, not the author. The act of reading is an internal, deeply personal event. I feel grateful yet very responsible when anyone reads what Iíve written. Reading is an act of trust and, when I hear a compliment about my books, I know Iíve lived up to that trust. Itís not that I expect or want to please everyone. But I definitely hope that anyone who reads enough to care about my characters will be satisfied in the end by what Iíve done. So far, so good!
CHAPTERS.CA: Describe the special relationship that exists between Julie E. Czerneda and her readers.
CZERNEDA: Ah, youíve been to my newsgroup, havenít you? There is a wonderful group of readers who keep in touch with me (and each other) through email, mail, conventions, and by posting regularly at my Ďgroup on the Internet. Some discovered my work with my first book, A Thousand Words for Stranger, and others have joined in over the past three years. Theyíve encouraged, teased, discussed, and been an inspiration. Many of these readers are very talented writers themselves, so as often as not their discussions help me through problems or difficulties. And they are amazing at finding information from my books. I confess to using them shamelessly when my memory fails me. To be honest, together they are probably better than any encyclopedia or news service.
I do my best to make this a two-way relationship. I post little snips of story or character descriptions from upcoming books for fun. I always post news about my work Ė or news of interest in science fiction, writing markets, etc. Ė on my newsgroup before sharing it any other way. We have contests at least once a month. Itís getting harder to make the questions difficult enough to last more than a day without a winner! And I have to keep in mind the time zones, in order to be fair. A lively place and Iíve my readers to thank for it.
Have I answered your question? Do I have a special relationship with my readers? I hope thatís true. They certainly hold a special place in my life.
CHAPTERS.CA: What do the words "self-promotion" mean to you?
CZERNEDA: Smiling. Meeting people. Reading, signing, doing workshops, appearing at conventions. Making sure I stand behind my work. Why is this important? First, itís fun. I like people and writing is a solitary pursuit unless you get out and make the effort to interact with others. Second, Iíve made it my business to learn about publishing and bookselling, quite apart from the creative process of writing a book. I know Iím part of a team of people making a living based on how many copies of my books sell. I appreciate what they do; I know they appreciate whatever I can do as well. Often, particularly locally, thatís more.
As a new author -- without any name recognition to reassure people about what they are buying Ė itís important to show readers and booksellers who I am. Not every author is comfortable in public, but if you are, itís the best way to meet readers, gain invaluable feedback, and enlist the support of the people who can hold out your book in their hands in stores.
CHAPTERS.CA: What is the most outrageous question or comment youíve encountered?
CZERNEDA: There havenít been many. At my very first event, a well-dressed older gentleman stood up when I finished reading and asked very politely why such a charming and feminine lady as myself had ever become involved in science, let alone science fiction. I wasnít sure if I was flattered or annoyed, but he was obviously sincerely interested so I talked a bit about how Iíd come to love science.
Then there was the book flinging incident in a mall. An older woman, again very well-groomed and polite, hurried up to my pile of books and picked up A Thousand Words for Stranger. She started saying something nice to me, then stopped and brought the book closer to her face. With a loud and horrified cry of "this is Ė science fiction!" she flung the book at me as if it burned her fingers and literally ran away. Within five minutes, an almost identical woman approached me and I geared myself for another confrontation. But she picked it up, cooed "oh wonderful, science fiction," and asked for my autograph. So you really never know what to expect.
I did have a gentleman try to argue with me about the spelling of my last name.
Overall, the people I meet are curious and a little timid, so itís my job to find things to say to them to break the ice.
CHAPTERS.CA: How has your daily life changed since you first started out?
CZERNEDA: If I take my start as being when I sold my first novel, it has changed more in what I do than how much time I spend. I work full time as an author, but in a typical day Ė which I rarely have, mind you Ė I probably spend only half to two-thirds of my work time writing or editing. The rest is spent communicating. Thereís a lot of correspondence to keep up, as well as planning for upcoming events such as workshops. I respond as quickly as I can to any reader who contacts me. Thatís definitely a priority. I used to read and critique other writers, but unfortunately my time for that has diminished as my other responsibilities increased. I still do as much of that as possible, usually as followup to workshops, but I donít take on unsolicited reading anymore.
CHAPTERS.CA: What was the most important item you learned about writing that you wish you had gotten when you first started out?
CZERNEDA: That other people were doing it! Iíd already sent out my first manuscript to a publisher before discovering the SF community. Everything, from the craft to the business, I had to find out on my own. Then I went to my first SF convention and found all of these people who not only read and enjoyed what I did, but who were more than willing to help me in my efforts to be published. If Iíd known there was this support and encouragement out there, I think I would have taken the plunge much sooner.
CHAPTERS.CA: Paint us a picture of what surrounds you in your writing space.
CZERNEDA: Open sky and a pond with bullfrogs. I do quite a bit of writing in the backyard when weather permits. Indoors, I have two offices. One is for non-fiction and the other for fiction. The non-fiction office is mostly bookshelves with reference material and a big table I can pull out when I need work space. The fiction office? Thatís my brain space. Right now, Iíve a huge banner from the movie Titan A.E. filling one wall. There are bookshelves on all the others, but still room for what you could call an eclectic mix of things that interest me. If I glance around: dragons, a pair of crowís feet, newspaper headlines about the space program, photos from SF shows I like, a stuffed elephant a reader sent me Ė along with the coyote jaw another reader sent. Things the kids have made over the years. Major piles of paper, because you are catching me at a desk-challenged moment. Sometimes thereís wood showing under there. Really. I have two desks, one for the computer and one for the piles. In general, I surround myself with things that intrigue me. Itís a very personal place.
CHAPTERS.CA: What do you listen to, read or watch when you need inspiration?
CZERNEDA: I donít need inspiration, as such. What I do need at times is a way to shut out the world and focus my attention, especially if itís been a busy morning or supper hour and Iím trying to get into my story quickly. Then I play music in my computer. This is probably a horrible thing to admit, but I usually pick one CD and set it to repeat. For weeks. I think Iím looking for white noise, rather than mood music. Each book has had its CD. I used the Godzilla soundtrack for Ties of Power. I think most of Changing Vision was written to the Zorro soundtrack. A Thousand Words for Stranger and Beholderís Eye almost wore out my copy of The Planets and the X-files. In my defense, I donít think I actually hear the music after the first minute, so it becomes something of a cue saying "time to write, Julie."
CHAPTERS.CA: Do you have an all-time favourite memorable SF or Fantasy character?
CZERNEDA: Three come to mind Ė I think because they have a great deal in common. The Prince of Hed from Patricia McKillipís Riddlemaster series. Bren Cameron from C.J. Cherryhís Foreigner series. And Tristan (and others) from C.J.ís Fortress novels. Seemingly ordinary, believable people who donít seek or want power, yet are put into situations where they prove to have incredible power Ė and responsibility. I enjoy the way other characters reacte to these. Part of that is the authorsí skill, but a lot is in having characters who forge connections with others by their innocence, honour, and lack of pretense. Perhaps itís because I feel there is potential heroism in anyone that such characters mean more to me.
CHAPTERS.CA: How about favourite film?
CZERNEDA: Youíve probably noticed I squirm about being pinned down to "a" favourite. Honestly, it depends on my mood at the time you ask. At this minute, right now? Galaxy Quest is right up there. LadyHawke is another. Men in Black. Earth Girls are Easy. Any Godzilla movie. Anything by Tim Burton. Star Wars. Star Trek. My favourite genre TV show at the moment is Farscape, but I never miss Buffy, Angel, Roswell, Voyager, or the X-files. And others (although many are on tape waiting for me). See? A hopeless question. I love them all.
CHAPTERS.CA: Youíve recently been involved in editing a series of anthologies: Stardust, Explorer and Orbiter.
CZERNEDA: Ah yes, the "Tales from the Wonder Zone" series, coming from Trifolium Books, Inc.
CHAPTERS.CA: What do you find are the main differences or challenges with that as opposed to working on your novels?
CZERNEDA: Bookkeeping. Iím serious. Thereís an astonishing amount of administration required to keep everything straight and flowing efficiently in the anthologies, starting from the beginning with the invitations to the authors. Hasnít stopped yet! Then, thereís developing the concept and working with the authors, editing and reviewing, directing the artwork and approving designs with the publisher -- these are all very creative challenges. Those aspects are very like what I do in my novels. What differs is managing the flow of information among the authors, artist, copyeditor, reviewers, the publisher, and the design/production team Ė as well as marketing and media. I enjoy that, especially since Iím dealing with incredibly talented people who believe wholeheartedly in these books, but itís quite different from settling oneís mind into a story and writing for four hours. Frankly, it makes the novels seem like a vacation.