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Interview: Kathy Tyers
Kathy Tyers is the author of Firebird (Bethany House, 1999), Fusion Fire (Bethany House, 2000), and several other books. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree and an Elementary Education Certificate from Montana State University at Bozeman, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Kathy and her husband Mark live in Montana with their son Matthew. She took part in the list in February, 2000. James BeauSeigneur, Bob Blackman, Peter Chattaway, Manuel Edwards, Dale Pizzo, Thomas P. Roche, and Greg Slade asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. You can find out more about Kathy Tyers from the Kathy Tyers Fan Club, from Bob Briner's Roaring Lambs column in Contemporary Christian Magazine, and from the Bethany House Publishers web site.
- GS: Where were you born?
Seaside Memorial Hospital, Long Beach, California
- GS: Where did you go to school?
My high school was Long Beach Polytechnic, in Long Beach CA. College: Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana.
- GS: What did you take in school, and why?
I wanted to study music, but my parents (both of whom have music degrees) declared they would not pay for my education if I majored in music (!!). (Actually, they had fairly good reasons.) Then I wanted to study education, but my father (the self-made man, a classic Type A and an extremely hard worker) declared, "Any dummy can be a teacher. You will study something that uses your brains." My answer was that not any dummy could be a good teacher, but since he held the purse strings, he prevailed. I arrived at MSU-Bozeman as a chemistry major, not because of any overriding desire to study chemistry, but simply because my SAT chemistry score was high. A year later, I switched to microbiology. My first degree was a B.S. in Micro.
I worked for three years in the micro department at MSU (2 years as an immunobiology tech, then 1 year in the media kitchen, helping set up for
classroom experiments.) Then our church started an elementary school, and I discovered that I still wanted to be a teacher. I returned to MSU, got my elementary ed certificate, and taught primary grades for 3 years at the Christian school. Tough job, but I loved it (and adored the kids.)
- GS: What is your marital status?
Still married, 25 years later, by the grace of God. My husband Mark teaches bands and choirs. We also play folk music together, and we've released two recordings. He has a lovely lyric baritone voice and plays acoustic guitar. I'm the side man -- I play flute, sing a bit, and I used to dabble on the Irish harp.
- GS: What are the names of the recordings, and what label are they on?
Leave Her, Johnny and The Very Best Dreams were self-produced, and yes, we still have copies (on CD only.)
- GS: Do you have any children?
Yes, one son (Matthew), who is 18 and a senior in high school. We are now college shopping. Just returned from visiting 3 east of here. His dad will take him to visit 2 south of here, come spring break.
- GS: How did you get started writing?
I've been through three "spurts" of writing. I created three chapbooks (for lack of a better word) as a second- or third-grader. I drew the cover and interior illustrations myself, too. I wish I still had them, but my mother threw them out along with a large box of school papers.
The second spurt was in junior high. I did some co-writing with a dear friend -- fantasy adventures featuring ourselves, naturally (all told in first-and-second person) <g>.
I started writing "seriously" when Matthew was two years old and took long naps. I'd been Matthew's Mommy for two solid years, and I decided I ought to be doing something constructive during those naps (and while he played with his Legos -- he was and is a Lego fan.) That was the summer Return of the Jedi was released; it was also the summer of Bozeman's centennial, and the USAF Thunderbirds were brought in for a celebration. I fell in love with high-performance aircraft.
Remembering those "writties" that my friend and I used to compose, I started writing a novel -- its first incarnation was as an utterly unpublishable piece of Star Wars fan fiction, taking place after RotJ. But upon my father-in-law's encouragement, I joined a writers group, learned to edit, and worked up the courage to rewrite the book and try marketing it. It sold on the third try. I was flabbergasted.
You shouldn't have too much trouble finding traces of Star Wars in that first novel....
- GS: What books have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF titles)
Firebird, Bantam Spectra, 1987
Fusion Fire, Bantam Spectra, 1988
Crystal Witness, Bantam Spectra, 1989
Shivering World, Bantam Spectra, 1991
Exploring the Northern Rockies, Companion Press, 1991
Star Wars: The Truce at Bakura, Bantam Spectra, 1993
One Mind's Eye, Bantam Spectra, 1996
Truce at Bakura Sourcebook, West End Games, 1996 (co-written with Eric Trautmann)
Firebird (revised version!), Bethany House, 1999
Fusion Fire (ditto), Bethany House, 2000
a novel for Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, Del Rey, 2000
Crown of Fire (third Firebird novel), Bethany House, 2000
- GS: Of your books, which one is your favourite? (including works in progress)
That's tough! I'm torn between the new Firebird and the new Fusion Fire. Crown is torn apart at the moment, being rewritten -- I hope that in a week or two I'd call that my new favorite.
- ME: My research indicates that about 80% of people who shop in CBA 1 stores are women, and of the total shoppers, only 35% buy books (the rest buy music, cards, and gifts.)
I've read similar numbers. The situation is not one that's going to make writers wealthy, or anything close to it.
- ME: If it's fair to say that only a small minority of the book buyers will buy science fiction, what do you think of the argument that a science fiction author's best bet is to market to the ABA1, even if the author is a Christian?
Define "best bet." To reach the widest possible audience, make the most money (speaking as if there were significant money to be made writing sf, which usually doesn't happen), and get the best exposure, naturally the ABA is an excellent choice. They simply work with larger numbers.
And I do not perceive the ABA as closed to well-written fiction from within a Christian worldview, so long as the sf is not too (hm, how can I put this?) ... predictable and/or traditional. Give them a truly original slant, without "too much religion" (how much is "too much" will depend on the editor), and you have as good a chance in the ABA as a Wiccan, Buddhist, Baha'i, or anyone else.
So to justify why I'm in the CBA at present --
I'd like to contribute to the CBA's ongoing diversification. I'd like to see the CBA get more respect. I think it's valid to say that many people are looking for a good read that's guaranteed to stay within certain boundaries (whether or not we agree with where they set their boundaries.) For them, fiction sold in a CBA store ought to have a lower flinch factor than most ABA fiction. Remember Paul's statement about some people choosing not to eat meat (forgive me for not looking up the reference.) Why shouldn't these folks have exciting stories to read, too?
- ME: In your experience, are there any Christian houses with the ability and the resources to market outside of the CBA1? If so, who are they?
I haven't researched that topic. This would be a great question to bring to a writers conference, and ask editors -- preferably on an editors panel. Maybe someone else on the list knows: wasn't Avon trying to market to both ABA and CBA a while ago?
- BB: How long before Crown of Fire and what are the pros and cons to ordering an unrevised version as opposed to waiting for the revised?
Crown of Fire is scheduled for release late this year, probably in late November (a writer's favorite time to have a book released -- Christmas shoppers are in the stores!) As for the unrevised version -- Crown has never been published, so the Bethany version will be a premiere.
- BB: Firebird was my first and only exposure to your work. Of your writings, what else is in your opinion a must read?
That would depend on your taste. If you like hard SF, Shivering World would be a good choice. My editor at Bantam asked me to try writing something that utilized my microbiology background, so I plotted SW around genetic engineering and terraforming. And there's a romance (hey... it's me.) If you like Star Wars, by all means try The Truce at Bakura. Exploring The Northern Rockies is a softcover coffee-table book with gorgeous photos (I did not take them; I only wrote the text.) It's hard to find, though. If you'd like an attempt at psychology, I call One Mind's Eye my "alien invasion codependency novel." If you grew up on Eloise Jarvis McGraw, and her wonderful young-adult historical fiction novels, you would find that Crystal Witness very roughly parallels the plot of her Mara, Daughter of the Nile.
- BB: In Firebird there is a restriction on sharing the faith with anyone except those who specifically ask. Is this a position you personally advocate and how in your mind does it fit with what we know as 'The Great Commission'?
No, I don't advocate it! There are a couple of reasons why I put this injunction in the Firebird series. For one thing, Brennen's people are based more on Judaism than on Christianity, and in my experience, Jews are not required to win converts -- in fact they tend to discourage potential proselytes -- the reason I've been given is that it is so hard to be a good Jew that even those born to the faith have trouble keeping the standard. A second point is that my Sentinels are under divine discipline for the sins of their fathers (the genetic engineers, who essentially destroyed a world.) The Ehretan-Thyrian Sentinels have been commanded to serve other peoples until some future date (when I assume God will tell them, "Well done, good and faithful servants -- now have at it!") Third -- this is speculative fiction. I'm speculating that under some circumstances, in a loosely Judaic society, the command we take for granted might be turned on its ear.
- GS: This is a bit of back story which I find quite tantalising. There are hints of it in Firebird (and, I presume, more in Fusion Fire, upon which I have yet to lay hands.) Will you make the nature of that sin clear in this series, or are you willing to tell us now?
Do you mean to say that altering the genetics of their offspring and depopulating a world isn't enough? <g>
Seriously, there is a bit more of the back story in Fusion Fire, and I'd hoped to add more detail in future books. Now that the series has been cut from 5 books to 3, I have to be extremely selective about what goes in and what gets edited out. Back story is important, especially to the thoughtful reader, but keeping the story moving at an exciting clip -- not always my strong point! -- is a higher priority. I tend to put too much back story in my early chapters.
- BB: When you begin writing a new novel, how much about how it will end do you know while working on the first few chapters? I've written and had published several short stories (not sci-fi) and often find even in works of 5000 words, that the ending is often vastly different than what I anticipated when I started writing. I guess I'm asking, how firm an outline do you begin a novel with?
Oh, I begin with a very firm outline! But I nearly always deviate from it. Characters have right-of-way over plot, in my books. As the characters develop, they take the plot astray. Rather like life, I think.
I tend to start brainstorming with an interesting character. I like to
spend a day or two inside her skin (yes, my main characters are usually female), and find out where she hurts. At that point, the plot begins to develop. I'll type this out, trying various major plot twists, until I have enough material to fill 2 or 3 pages. The next draft will be 5-10 pages. At that point, I have a feel for how the scenes will fall into place, and I rough out a scene-by-scene outline (usually with 1-3 scenes per chapter.) That is my working outline. As I said, it nearly always changes (my first agent said that 90% of the time, the finished work will deviate from the editor-approved outline, and 90% of the time that will be just fine).
- GS: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?
The Holy Spirit, I hope. There is no why.
Next, my husband, Mark -- for rather controversial reasons. He instigated a screeching halt in my writing career several years ago, when he became convinced that I was not headed in good directions (not exactly to hell in a handbasket, but he claimed he saw danger signs.) To prove him wrong I chose to take a long sabbatical, did some serious re-thinking of goals and techniques and the effects of fiction on society, and concluded that he had seen danger signs. I came out of that crisis with a better sense of priority (family first, then career -- amazing how difficult that choice can be when it's my life and not someone else's.) Therefore he has had a huge influence on my career, and we are still married. (As I said in the previous batch of questions -- only by the grace of God.)
I can just see some of your ears starting to steam. I'm not saying that any one ought to have to make a choice between career and family. And btw, Mark has his regrets about the crisis, too. But I have diatribes of my own that I could deliver, regarding how terribly important it is to be careful of what goes into our brains. We may think we're skipping "the bad parts" when actually they're recalled at a very deep level.
Back to my influences -- there are several authors whose work I consciously or unconsciously emulate. I love Dorothy L. Sayers' tone and style. I love Tolkien's ability to plot a long work and give it a mythic quality. I'm amused when I re-read Anne McCaffrey and see how many of her ideas made their way into my subconscious. And yes, I'm sure I've been influenced by Star Wars.
My other major influences have been the friends whose work I've critiqued, and who have critiqued my work, over the past 17 years. One in particular -- Karen in Tucson -- has had an enormous impact on my sense of story, pacing, scene writing, and internal logic.
Incredibly, she is still unpublished.
- GS: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF as a genre?
When I was in fifth grade and had pretty much exhausted the kids' fiction section at the Dana Branch of the Long Beach Public Library, the librarian steered me to the junior-high section. After perusing titles for a while, I chose The Star Conquerors by Ben Bova because it sounded exciting. It was. I read it twice before I read anything else in the stack I'd brought home.
- GS: What is your personal all-time favourite SF work, and why?
That is a terribly hard question. If you'd asked "sf or fantasy," I'd answer Lord of the Rings, of course. And there are too many wonderful sf works... At the moment, I'd either name Zenna Henderson's body of works about "The People" because of the depth of hope and love in those tales... or else Diann Thornley's much more contemporary military sf novels, because of the medical and military realism, and the deep personal ethics of the characters. (Diann is LDS -- we are friends anyway, and we both pray for each other! ;-) )
- GS: How did you become a Christian?
I'm one of those long-journey-from-faith-to-faith people. I've wanted to know & serve God as long as I can remember. I took the long way around, but got serious about Christ when I read The Screwtape Letters as a college sophomore. I devoured it in one day and did some fervent praying that night on my bunk.
- GS: What church do you go to?
My family belongs to the Evangelical Free Church of Bozeman, Montana.
- GS: How did you come to go to that particular church?
I'd heard about it for many years as a "right-on church where the Bible is preached" that "started in somebody's garage and just grew and grew." My in-laws started attending, and reported that they liked it. The in-laws have moved on, but we're still there. I help out in the church library and set up for communion. It's a friendly, informal, large congregation, and the Bible is still preached, and it's still growing.
- GS: How does your faith affect your writing?
It affects everything in my life... I hope.
- GS: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?
Standard first answer -- still as true as ever -- the Bible.
After that -- C.S. Lewis' nonfiction, which I read and re-read in college. I'm currently chewing on Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, which I picked up when I read that it was Chuck Colson's favorite work of fiction. Besides, it sounds so impressive when you tell people you like it.
My problem with that question is that every time I try to answer it, I later realize I've forgotten to mention two or three works.
- GS: When you were writing Firebird, were there any theological "puzzles" you had to sort through to your own satisfaction before you could continue with the story?
My main challenge was to try to create a spacefaring, pre-Messianic (but looking for His coming) civilization. Creating the other religious group -- the false faith -- was almost embarrassingly easy. I simply switched my fallen nature on to "full power" and let it rip for a couple of days.
- GS: Ah, so you read the foreword to the Screwtape Letters, and didn't just skip on to the main text, like other people... :-)
I didn't recall quoting Screwtape when I made that comment, but now that you bring my attention to the reference, I see what you mean. Just goes to show how deeply the things we read can seep into our minds.
- TR: What other sci-fi authors/works do you like, irrespective of whether they be christians?
I do hate this question, because every time I return an answer, I remember later 2 or 3 works or authors I should've mentioned! But here are a few that I can turn and read off my sf bookshelf, which has been thinned many times -- these are the survivors of many purges.
Asimov's Foundation's Edge. Bova's The Star Conquerors (I like space opera.) Alan E. Nourse's Raiders From the Rings and Scavengers in Space. Nearly all the early Heinlein YA books, and nearly all of Jerry Oltion's too-little-known writing (he has mostly been published in Analog.) Zenna Henderson, consistently. Diann Thornley. M.K. Wren's Sword of the Lamb and its two sequels.
- TR: On what basis do you decide whether an author is worth continuing to read? What criteria defines good sf for you?
The first test that a book must pass, to come in through our front door --
and it grieves me to admit this, but it is an absolute that came out of that dark period in our marriage -- occurs in the bookstore. The novel gets a cautious once-over of front and back cover notes, teaser, first several pages, and several random openings. If that small sampling turns up gratuitous sex, exploitation, over-the-top violent themes, off-color language, or slander against God, the book goes right back on the shelf -- regardless of its reputation. I know this excludes plenty of books, including most recent Nebula winners, that others would consider "redeemed by their fine literary quality." For me, bringing them home is no longer an option.
After that -- I'm harder to please, these days, on such issues as writing style and logical plotting. Anything that shows poor writing skill -- viewpoint skips, clunky dialog -- or errors in science (beyond conventions sf writers take for granted, such as ftl travel) -- is likely to keep me from finishing.
Yes, I've also learned to put down a book before finishing it. I've already wasted the money -- why waste any more precious hours? Recent example -- on the suggestion of another Christian who works in the publishing industry, whose opinion I value, I picked up the first novel of a popular, reportedly-very-clean space opera series, checked it over at the store, took it home, and settled in. I relished every page -- up to about page 130, where the author introduced a new, extremely foul-mouthed character. I had to pitch the book. It was a wrench, because by then I was enjoying the story.
My husband's reaction, when I told him I'd pitched it after the fourth swear word -- was not praise, but "That was three swear words too many." So you see, this is a hot-button issue, and it pits the Tyers household against most of the rest of 21st-century America -- but so be it. There is nothing that we give up for the Lord's sake that He doesn't pay back, with interest.
I look for good characters, good technique, plausible science, and most of all . . . a story that engages me, that gives me a glimpse at life from someone else's perspective and refreshes my sense of hope. Probably not so different from what you like to read.
- ME: And it's good to hear you say it. Amen. (Referencing, "There is nothing that we give up for the Lord's sake that He doesn't pay back, with interest.")
Bless you, Manny! He gave back so much -- I never dreamed I'd get a second chance at finishing the SF series dearest to my heart, after Bantam decided they didn't want the third Firebird book. I can't count how many times I was told, "Once a publisher decides they don't want to finish a series, you can forget about it. No other publisher will pick it up."
- ME: It's challenging; how do you illustrate the depravity of lost souls without explicitly portraying the characteristics of depravity?
It can be done! And as Peter pointed out (it was you, wasn't it, Peter? I can't remember anything for longer than 5 minutes -- that's why my notebook has to hold so much information), the villains in Star Wars never emitted a single off-color word... but we believed they were evil nonetheless.
- ME: The Bible has no profanity, yet it clearly illustrates the consequences of sin. I'm not convinced that my characters must be explicitly profane in order to be "real." Don't forget that David's stone sunk into Goliath's head even though we didn't hear him curse, and remember that "brood of vipers" was enough of a condemnation for the Lord to expose the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.
And -- I'm not living by this standard, mind you, but I'm challenged by it -- Jesus said "Swear not at all, but let your yes be yes and your no be no." No embellishment, no extra verbiage, ought to be necessary if we are known as people who keep faith, and who carry out what we have said we will do. There are people who refuse to swear to tell the truth in court because of that verse.
- JB: I have been wrong so often in my life that I hesitate to say this even when I think I'm certain I'm correct ;-), but it seems obvious from the context (Mt. 5:33-37) that Jesus was not talking about profanity here at all. As is implied even in the latter part of your response, "swearing" was referring to something more akin to "double dog promising" to tell the truth.
As usual, I neglected to insert a transition between thoughts -- my critiquers catch me at it all the time -- yes. He was, I understand,
insisting that nothing beyond giving our word ought to be necessary. I was making a leap from profanity, through (and entirely neglecting to mention) the excruciatingly high scriptural standard of not using any excess verbiage at all, to that quote.
Apologies. This is an example of why no manuscript goes to my editor
without having at least one keen-eyed friend look it over.
JB: While I choose not to use profanity myself, it would be a distortion of the non-Christian characters in my books to insist that they abide by the rules I place upon myself.
Now admittedly, my books are not written primarily for a Christian audience, but rather are written to the lost as an evangelistic tool. But if I make my non-Christian characters act and talk like Christians, I assume my audience is smart enough to sense this and will toss the books in the can before I get around to sharing the Gospel. As Paul wrote in I Cor. 9:22, "To the weak I became as weak that I might gain the weak." (Okay, I do limit the vocabulary of swear words to those not quite so offensive, and my characters never take the Lord's name in vain.)
My solution, such as it is, is to place my stories within alternate societies -- far-future or other-galaxy -- so that the glaring lack of swear words (or the few "invented" swear words such as "squill") -- seem a little more like common usage.
As I said, I am not comfortable on this soap box. My upbringing was considerably more urban and liberal than Mark's.
- JB: I had a long conversation with Frank Peretti about this same subject. He told me he would like to allow his non-Christian characters to speak as they actually would but that would never be accepted by his publisher.
And it would not be accepted by my husband, to whom I made some extremely important promises... until God by death doth separate us.
- JB: Anyway, Kathy, based on your only-one-curse-word-per-book standard (BTW: did you adopt that standard to allow Gone With The Wind among your approved list?)
Did I put Gone with the Wind on my approved list? I don't think so... <g>
But there you go, circling the chinks in my armor with a broad felt-tip pen. I believe Star Wars had more than one "hell-and-damn" level swear word, and it has survived to be "approved." Sigh. Humans are irrevocably (and I hope endearingly) inconsistent.
- PC: Hmmmm. I can think of two spoken by Han Solo and one spoken, almost in quote marks, by Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Interestingly, I can't recall any by the villains -- presumably because they aren't as "human" as the heroes.)
I read that villains can be effectively portrayed by having them speak in excruciatingly correct grammar. I think it works.
- ME: So much is said about POV, but if you read Tom Clancy's novels, he consistently mixed POV in his scenes. Is this just another case of "Know the rules and break them if it works?"
My objection is to the ping-pong of romance novels: "He salivated, adoring the luscious ruby color of her lips from across the room, even as her heart beat faster at the sight of wisps of black hair curling just beneath his collar..."
- GS: Is there a web site (either run by you or fans) devoted to your work?
No, but a fellow who calls himself TZMaverick started a fan list: firstname.lastname@example.org. It's more like a cozy chat room in slow motion than a literary discussion group. I check in once a week (at a different e-dress) and answer the mail.
(Note: After a brief flurry of messages, which I won't reproduce here, since it entailed me displaying my ignorance three different ways, we managed to ascertain that TZmaverick's real name is Joseph Cowgill, and that he does, in fact, have a fan site for Kathy at: http://members.aol.com/tzmaverick/private/page6.html. Thanks to Kathy and to Dale Pizzo for setting me straight.)
- GS: Also, could you please tell us how to pronounce:
You are welcome to pronounce them any way your heart desires! But here's how I say --
- buh-COOR-uh (from a Korean term for "outside" that I picked up in Tae Kwon Do)
- BOSH-um (from the name of my Polish friend, Basia, pronounced BOSH-uh) (I have also been known to pronounce this one BOSS-yum, though)
- CARE-uh-dee (from "chickadee", I suppose)
- si-TANJ-uh-low (from "city" and "Angelo")
- KRISS-tuss (from "crystal")
- AIR-ut (a surname -- this world was "Auria" in a previous version, and Steve asked me to change it, to avoid all implication of "Aryan" as the "superior race" -- which had not occurred to me)
- GEH-ree-ul (Derivation: You figure it out. Substitute "lad" for the first "e.")
- FEE-nuh (Steve, who lies in Phoenix, still calls her foe-EE-nuh... I suspect he does that to bug me)
- si-WAN (from "swan")
- THEAR-i-kuh (maybe subliminally from "Syria")
- TIE-rrs, not "TEARS" (and I am fairly certain it is English)
- vr-OH (originally VeeRon, a pulp-sf planet name if I ever heard one)
- ME: Do you have tips on avoiding the slush pile?
I'm afraid I don't. That's how I got into publication. The slush pile is read... albeit slowly. Often, the first reader isn't the editor at all, but someone whose judgment the editor respects. Write an excellent book and you will rise to the top of that slush pile. There is some RE-e-e-ally bad stuff in there.
There is also work that is "close", but editors are afraid of responding positively to those authors, out of a fear of being utterly inundated with mail, e-mail, and telephone calls. There are only so many hours in their days, and they do not have an easy job. Don't be invisible, but don't harass them.
- GS: Hmmmm... are we to take this as an indication that you've taken your turn at slush pile triage? (Actually, it sounds like fun: reading through an immense pile of rubbish, looking for a gem.)
I've read manuscripts at sf-convention and other writing workshops.
Interesting (I hope) story -- when I made my first pilgrimage to NYC and the hallowed offices of Bantam Spectra, my editor (and good friend) Janna Silverstein showed me around the place. Teetering atop her small desk, in a room with no window, was a two-foot stack of manuscript bundles and boxes. I asked her, "Am I looking at a really, truly slush pile?" She got one of her wicked grins and said, "No, Kathy. That is the slime pile."
I don't know if that was a term used only at Bantam Spectra, but as Janna explained, her "slime pile" consisted of agented manuscripts that have come in from agents they've never heard of, who could be the author's mother-in-law with home-computer-printed letterhead and business cards, for all they know. Moral of that story -- if you're shopping for an agent, try to find one who belongs to their professional organizations. The editors are getting wise....
But she also assured me that even the "slime pile" is read. Eventually.
- ME: Does an author of Christian fiction need an agent who is familiar with the CBA1?
I suspect it would be beneficial. I am currently providing my agent her first experience with the CBA, and she almost scared off my publisher by coming on too strongly, the way she'd do with a New York ABA house.
- ME: Does publication in periodicals help get the publishers' attention (i.e., how important is the bio if it includes only periodicals)?
Yes. Publishers are impressed by anything you've had professionally
produced. They are impressed by publication in periodicals. They will be more impressed with national magazines than local newspapers, of course.
- ME: My view of "Christian" fiction is that it should be permitted to encompass fiction which does not necessarily explicitly feature the conversion or growth (in faith) of a central character, a la Penny Stokes, but also that which simply illustrates the goodness of values and virtues which we recognize as Christian, and the abysmal failure of worldly (or other-worldly, in the case of SF) values. In other words, the reader will close the book with an appreciation for the virtue itself, without having necessarily been told that it's a Christian virtue. What do you think?
I think it sounds like a lovely ideal. Perhaps, over time, the CBA1 will move in that direction.
- ME: How do you assess your chances of contributing to the growth and diversity of Christian fiction? Assume that Christian readers can be educated to find SF with Christian themes.
Slight, but -- Lord willing -- not non-existent.
- ME: How would you go about marketing SF to Christian readers (who, I assume, would buy it if they could only find it)?
SF readers who don't know that the CBA1 is currently "trying out" science fiction, or who distrust CBA SF because of its (previously discussed2) historical low quality, need to walk into the bookstores and look at the new crop of books with a fresh eye . . . quickly, before they go out of print. If CBA SF starts to sell well, more CBA publishers will take the plunge into the genre. As competition for the reader's dollar steps up, quality should (theoretically) improve. That is how our free market is supposed to work, not that it always does.
- GS: Why didn't Brennen notice Firebird's connaturality with him when he read her mind on Netaia?
It's not something that shows up on the surface. Her heart's cry over Veroh was from deep in her soul; the "evaluation" in the Electoral chamber was simply making sure she wasn't a threat.
- GS: Is The Truce at Bakura also descended from your original fanfic?
- GS: When you do a Star Wars novel, are you given fairly free reign, as long as you don't violate the established canon, or is your plotting strictly constrained?
In Truce at Bakura, I was given fairly free rein. Writing for the New Jedi Order is different; the story arc has already been written, and books are assigned with the major story events already determined. The scenes, though -- the way they will play out -- remain in the author's hands.
- GS: Continuing on in my thinking about Firebird, I can't help but wonder, if having metal in the way provides some protection from D-rifles, why Firebird and Brennen didn't hop over or climb through the metal railing in order to get a bit more cover?
This is a hand rail. Less than four inches from the stone wall. They wouldn't have fit.
- DP: How do you go about researching a novel?
Each novel is different. For Shivering World, I spent time at the university library -- I also subscribe to Science News, which is often good for story ideas. Writing Firebird, I went to every airshow in a hundred-mile radius, bought books and videos, went up in an aerobatics plane, and listened to oldies tapes every time I got in the car (it gets me in the mood....)
- DP: You mentioned a notebook you keep for the Firebird series. What other subjects in addition to "milit & >weapons" are in your notebook?
For that series, the headings are Continuity (list of made-up words to make proofreaders' job easier), Outlines and Notes, Timelines (mostly Netaia's history), Sentinel History (includes a Caldwell family genealogy & Brennen's personal timeline) -- Families (Ehretan), Ehret and the Path (besides their theology, I keep track of the Hebrew words I borrow from Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, their original spelling and definitions), Whorl/Federacy (including 3-D sketch map and time/distance charts), Thyrica (mostly maps), Hesed (sketch of chapter room, notes on fielding installation), Shuhr & 3Z (history, characters, characters' priorities), Netaia (maps, genealogy charts, notes on the Holy Powers), and the heading you mentioned, Milit & Weapons (valuable notes from civilian and military advisors, including the former skipper of a USN submarine and a very helpful person in the USAF who doesn't want her field of service mentioned -- draw your own conclusion!)
- DP: You discussed an aerobatic flight in a friend's Citabria. (Airbatic spelled backwards.) What was that flight really like and how did it influence your writing?
Fabulous! Wayne did everything I asked for -- inside roll, outside roll, hammerhead stall, loops (my favorite!), and yes, he put it in a spin for me. I needed to know what Firebird was feeling when she tried to crash her fighter. Pure adrenaline! I've never felt the need for bungee jumping, after that.
- DP: I like the humor in your stories. Are there any hidden jokes?
If I told you, would they be hidden? ;-)
- DP: Why do you emphasize characterization? I find this to be the best part of your stories.
Thank you! I simply don't know how to write any other way. My first writers' group trained me in point-of-view, and to solidly establish a characters's POV, it's necessary to know the character well.
- DP: What advice would you like to give to aspiring writers of science fiction?
Read it -- analyze what you read -- write as often as you can (but keep your priorities straight) -- don't be afraid to throw out something you've written and try it again -- and be good to your working spouse, who supports your writing habit <g>.
- DP: How did you obtain a contract for the Firebird series with Bethany House Publishers? Were they in the market for a science-fiction novel when you and your agent approached them?
I'd heard for several years, at writers' conferences and along the grapevine, that there was an editor at BHP who was an extremely enthusiastic SF fan (reportedly read over 100 sf books a year -- THAT enthusiastic.) I even attended one conference where he was scheduled to appear, but he'd double-booked the weekend (due to someone else's scheduling goof-up) and didn't make it. (God's timing is perfect.)
Our paths finally crossed at the Mount Hermon Writers Conference in 1998. After a long hiatus from writing, I'd gleefully given up on trying to break into the "contemporary women's CBA fiction" market and outlined a revised Firebird series, simply because it was my passion -- but as the conference approached, my agent reminded me that CBA editors were not buying science fiction, and that I'd had an extremely close call the previous year, three solid nibbles on a here-and-now women's book set in Montana. So I dutifully re-polished the proposal for Blue Jean Abbey and sent it to Mount Hermon for pre-conference consideration by three editors. I also tucked the Firebird proposal into my satchel (without much hope) before I flew south.
I bumped into Steve Laube the evening I arrived, and he demanded an appointment after breakfast the next morning. I hardly slept that night. He wouldn't have asked for an appointment (I reasoned) if he didn't want to make an offer on BJA -- but I kept begging God, "I don't want to write that! I want to write Firebird!" (whine...)
After breakfast, he laid the BJA proposal on the table between us. "This is good," he said. "This is very good. Good characters, series potential." (Maybe not his exact words, but close enough.) Then he leaned forward and said something that I can quote. "But is it what you really want to write?"
I nearly died. I pulled the Firebird proposal out of my satchel and laid it on top of the other one. I explained what I wanted to do. He got a huge grin on his face... and then we really got to chatting. Turned out he had read the original Firebird books and kept them. He'd been hearing rumors that I was a Christian. He took the proposal back to Bethany House and told them, "I've been waiting for years for the right book, by the right person, at the right time. This is it." He talked them into taking a chance on science fiction.
Steve is now head of BHP's nonfiction program, and he edits only two fiction writers -- including me -- but he is still an enthusiastic fan, and hopes to do more sf/f in the future.
Life is good.
God is better.
- DP: I have a follow-up question regarding Blue Jean Abbey. Is it the same one you mentioned as being a "here-and-now women's book set in Montana?"
Yes, that's the one. I still might write it some day.
- DP: Who wrote the songs for the two record albums you and Mark produced?
On Leave Her, Johnny -- Steve Romanoff, Gordon Bok/Otter, Turlough O'Carolan, Walkin' Jim Stoltz, Garnet Rogers/Charles Kingley, Bill Monroe, Terry Gilkyson, and Stan Rogers. The rest are traditional.
On The Very Best Dreams -- Tommy Makem, Tom Paxon, Turlough O'Carolan, Gordon Bok, Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Paxton, Dave Mallett, Stan Kelly, and Michael Gorman. The rest are traditional.
- DP: How do you go about selecting songs for your albums?
We listen to folk shows (mostly on NPR), collect CDs recommended by friends, and listen for the songs that move us the very first time we hear them. Those go onto our performing schedule. Then the songs our audiences like best -- the songs that adapt well to our instrumentation -- survive the second cut to our recordings.
But it's been over 10 years since we made a recording. We haven't been inside a studio since Mark finished graduate school and got a real job... and since I started writing.
Our son has picked up the torch. He recently produced a CD on which he wrote both (yes, all two) songs, sang, and played bass -- his friends played drum and guitar. He's good.
- DP: What are your favorite musical instruments?
If I had world enough and time, I would love to learn to play the hammered dulcimer. I love the flute, which is a good thing. (My mother was a
professional flutist -- played with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, and on several late 40's and early 50's movie soundtracks for Twentieth Century Fox. In fact, if you ever rent the video version of Marilyn Monroe's How to Marry a Millionaire, and you happen to get the version with the Twentieth Century-Fox Orchestra playing an overture at the beginning... my mother is the flutist wearing the string of pearls!!) My son's oboe playing is
(pardon my prejudice) heart-melting. I love a well-played cello or French horn. But put a good Irish band on the stage -- not ceilildh style, but something more like the Bothy Band -- Uilleann (sp?) pipes, fiddle, keyboards, guitar, and of course the Irish harp -- and I float away.
- DP: Awesome! Which other movie soundtracks?
I wish I could remember. She never made a big deal about them. We still get a minuscule royalty check every year -- about $6.00 in 1999.
I do remember a couple of stories. One of the Fox "stars," Tony Martin, asked her for a date. (Big deal! She met my dad at a Tridelt-Sigma Chi barn dance -- much more exciting.) And when she played a flute concerto with the great Leopold Stokowski one summer, I'm told (this from her mom, my grandmother) that they had a bit of a disagreement about tempo, and finally she turned to him and said, "Are you going to follow me, or do I have to follow you?" Ah, the flutist's ego.
I miss her so much. She was killed 18 years ago today.
- DP: When you work on characterization, do you create biographies for all your major characters?
Not biographies but detailed character charts.
1. The CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, an organization which compiles information about the Christian literary, music, and gift markets, and generally acts as a focal point for publishers to distribute their stuff. The ABA is the American Booksellers Association, the CBA's secular counterpart. They are both well organized, but the ABA is much bigger. Although you don't actually market "to" either the CBA or the ABA, they're used as shorthand to identify the markets, the customers, which each one represents. So the CBA market refers to Christian customers and the ABA market refers to secular customers.
The CBA streamlines distribution (via distributors of religious books, music, and gifts, such as Spring Arbor) to both Christian bookstores and the religious or inspirational sections of mainstream stores, like the Peretti/LaHaye/Lucado cases in Wal-Mart. My theory is that science fiction has a hard time getting a foothold in the CBA because people who go to those bookstores and those sections are not looking for SF, not even SF with a Christian theme. The people looking for SF, even Christians, go to the SF section of secular bookstores.
Moreover, ABA publishers (i.e., publishers who use ABA distributors) target any "Christian" SF to the religious aisle in the bookstore -- where Christians go for inspiration, historical fiction, and romance, but not SF.
- Manuel Edwards
2. I posted a diatribe on the quality of Christian science fiction on the list, tangential to Manuel and Kathy's first exchange regarding the CBA and the ABA1. I have not included that message, or the thread it prompted, in this interview, because it didn't have anything to do with Kathy's work, since her work is not of the quality I was decrying. You can, however, read those messages in the SF-CHRISTIAN archives if you have joined the SF-CHRISTIAN mailing list.