David J Howe talks to fantasy and science fiction author Elizabeth Moon about her work.
Elizabeth Moon’s first published short fiction was in 1986, and her first novel, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter was published in 1988. However before this she enjoyed a brief career in the US Marines. ‘Playing around with computers is what I actually did,’ she clarifies. ‘They had me in data processing. I wasn’t out on ships as at that time the US Navy didn’t allow women on ships, so the services were quite separated. I had always planned to go into military service and the explanation for that I’m not entirely sure of myself. It’s just something I felt I had to do. I chose the Marine Corps as they were the least welcoming and they offered a challenge. I eventually got in by the skin of my teeth, but I made it.’
Despite the desire to work in this area, writing has always been Elizabeth’s first love. ‘I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember,’ she says with a smile. ‘My mother says I was telling stories and writing things in block capitals as a child. I tried to write a book when I was six years old.’ Elizabeth shakes her head at the memory. ‘It was about my dog …’
Elizabeth was put off writing while she was at High School as her mother had more practical concerns. ‘She said that I couldn’t make a living at writing, and also I didn’t feel I was that good. The year I was freshman at college I first read Tolkein, Frank Herbert’s Dune was coming out and Anne McCaffrey’s first Pern books were coming out. So I read all those and came to the conclusion that I wrote utter bilge. I measured myself against them and came up very short. So I put the writing aside for several years. I still wrote as a hobby, but I never thought I was very good.
‘What changed my mind was two things. One was that I ended up in a small town in Texas with no job opportunities. And, thinking that it would be nice to supplement the family income, I took an audited creative writing course at South Western University, and the tutor there taught me how to revise. I had always understood revision to mean fixing what’s wrong, rather than making the vision visible. When I got that straightened out I knew I really wanted to write but it took several years before I was published as I learned how to submit things and which editors not to argue with and so on.’
Elizabeth was lucky in that she was working for a local county newspaper writing a news column. ‘I also wrote a couple of feature stories: one was about one man who saved another when his tractor overturned on him. That gave me a good grounding. I then wrote a couple of articles with my husband for a medical magazine that wanted articles written by doctors. We figured that he has the MD; I can write; we can do this. And we sold several articles that way and that gave me more confidence in writing fiction. As people were buying my work, I started to believe in myself as a writer. I started to take fiction more seriously and the first story I sold was a fantasy called Bargains and was bought by Marion Zimmer Bradley for her Sword and Sorceress III anthology. She had rejected five of my stories, and came back with the announcement that she only had room for a 1500 word humorous story. She’d almost liked the fifth one I sent but had no more room for it. I wept and wailed that I had been rejected again, but then I realised that she had sent me what amounted to an engraved invitation. So I wrote a short humorous story that was 2300 words long and then cut it down to the required length. My newspaper background allowed me to understand that this was a real restriction, that 1500 words meant 1500 words. So much to my pleasure she bought it and then about a month later Analog bought a science fiction story called ABCs In Zero G.’
Elizabeth has had success writing both science fiction and fantasy and I wondered which she preferred. ‘I’m split,’ she admitted. ‘I like both. I feel good doing both. They come from different parts of my imagination. Sometimes I can write one type more easily than I can the other. To write the longer fantasy books, I have to have uninterrupted time which I have not had for several years and which I’m not going to have for several more years. We’re home-schooling our son who is autistic which doesn’t leave a lot of time for other things. I can write science fiction novels in the spaces, and I can write short fantasy fiction, but I can’t do the deeper, longer fantasy books.
‘For this kind of fantasy I have to get into that world and live in it in order to generate a consistent presentation. I have to be sitting in it for maybe 45 minutes to an hour before it even begins to flow. Science Fiction is more intellectual perhaps. The worlds are less psychological and emotional and the writing comes a bit easier.’
The two novels recently published by Orbit in the UK were actually written some ten years ago, and they together form a prequel to Elizabeth’s popular series The Deed of Paksenarrion, which comprises the novels Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (1988), Divided Allegiance (1988) and Oath of Gold (1989). I wondered what had made Elizabeth want to write a prequel. She shrugs. ‘I wanted to know what had happened before. When I wrote the Paksenarrion series I knew that the history about which my character Pak knew was mythical but I found that I wanted to know what really happened. The way I find out is always to write the book. Having completed the first prequel – Surrender None – I became fascinated by a character called Luap. Why he was as he was. So I had to write another book to find out – Liar’s Oath. There should actually be one further book in this group which I’ve not been able to write yet, and which I won’t be able to write until my son is out of the house, and then I will do it. It will be Gird’s daughter’s story because she completes what, for me, is what he started which ends up with the situation that Pak finds in The Deed of Paksenarrion.’
With the prequel novels to The Deed of Paksenarrion just being made available to UK audiences, I wondered what the next projects for Elizabeth would be. ‘I’ve just finished the science fiction Serrano Legacy series with Against The Odds which was published in America at the end of 2000, and I’ve just joined a new US publisher, Del Rey, and my first book for them will be very different. It’s a story centred on an adult autistic person and his internal struggles with a new technology which may reverse his autism but which may make him worse. A lot of the background to that project is coming from my experiences with my son, who’s seventeen now. The book’s not yet finished and I don’t know what the answers will be. It’s a complex subject, though, and one which I hope will make for an entertaining and thought provoking novel.’
Surrender None and Liar’s Oath are published in paperback by Orbit.
David J Howe