I’m pleased to welcome Kameron Hurley to the interview portion of the blog. Kameron is the author of the novels God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture–a science/fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel.
She won the Hugo Award (twice) and was a finalist for the Nebula Award, the Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel.
Her most recent novel is the subversive epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. The sequel, Empire Ascendant, will be out in October 2015. She writes regularly for Locus Magazine and publishes personal essays at kameronhurley.com.
Ryan: Thanks for joining us, Kameron. I’m glad to have you on. Your recent book The Mirror Empire describes a world with many different cultures and philosophies clashing together. Was there something in particular that inspired each one?
Kameron: My academic background is in historical studies, so I have piles of examples of different cultures living in different ways during different times. I got tired of seeing the same old “generic fantasy” people and places in epic fantasy in particular. If we can’t make our fantasy as wildly nutty as real history–with its four genders, polygamous marriages, and matrilineal inheritance laws–then we as fantasy writers are suffering from a serious failure of imagination.
Ryan: I know this is broad, but what do you try to accomplish in your stories?
Kameron: I like to challenge people and shake up their expectations. I’m tired of reading the same old “fantasy” stories about the same old cultures with the same old tropes. I read a lot, and I’m drawn to science fiction and fantasy because I want to see things that are really different. If I wanted same-old, same-old, I’d write lit fiction.
Ryan: You’ve been publishing short fiction since 1998. How would you compare writing short fiction to full-length novels?
Kameron: Short fiction isn’t my favorite form, to be sure. I don’t have the breathing room that I do in novels. I’ve been writing novel-length work since I was twelve, and I liked the ability to tell grander, more complex stories. Writing stories of 5,000 words or less is excruciating.
The difference, for me, is simply length and complexity. You only get to explore a couple of ideas in short fiction; it’s easier to keep the story in my head and structure it correctly, but less satisfying because there’s more I feel I need to leave open-ended in short pieces.
Ryan: A Hugo award is a coveted accomplishment. If you could package the experience of receiving that in a description, what would it be?
Kameron: People always wonder what it feels like to win these types of awards, but you know, it’s difficult to talk about because the Hugo in particular was an award that I never thought I’d win. It’s an award determined by popular vote, and needless to say, not only was I never a cool kid, but I never found what I wrote to be very mainstream, even and especially my nonfiction work. It’s still rather surreal to me, like maybe there was some kind of mistake. I feel like I stepped into some other reality.
Ryan: If there was one piece of your writing, be it full-length or short, that you feel best personifies who you are as a writer, which would it be, and why?
Kameron: Every piece I write has a big piece of me in it. You can’t pin down just one.
Ryan: What are your greatest writing distractions?
Kameron: Twitter. That’s it, really. I’ve given up everything else!
Ryan: How much does timing have to do with a book’s (or a writer’s) success?
Kameron: A lot. I’ll say that without any caveats. The reality is that what’s selling in the market has a lot to do with your chances of success. Yes, write a great book, but then I’d also say you need to get it to the right people at the right time, especially if it’s singular or weird in any way. I sold my God’s War trilogy the first time only to see the contract cancelled when my editor was laid off. We sold again to a smaller press, which ended up not paying people and going into near bankruptcy and eventual sale that landed the books in a situation that wasn’t much better.
When I went to sell my next series, every major publisher passed on it because of the poor sales of my third book, caught languishing at my prior publisher. But that was the same year that my work was nominated for a Clarke Award and Hugo Awards, and the We Need Diverse Books movement became a huge thing. When The Mirror Empire came out, the week after the Hugos, I knew we’d lined up everything as well as we could, and whatever happened was going to happen. It turned out the book sold more in five months than my first book has sold in four years. And suddenly I had editors knocking at my door–people who’d passed on my work earlier in the year.
It’s a weird, cyclical business, and you have to hang on through the ups and downs. You never know when something is going to hit, or crash. You have to see editors and publishers as gamblers betting on horses. You’re the horse. What odd are you bringing to the table?
Ryan: What is an area (whether it be writing related or otherwise) that you wish you were better prepared before becoming published?
Kameron: The business, certainly. I wasn’t prepared for how much personal relationships matter in this business, or how much you can change boilerplate contracts (I’ve been astonished at some of the things my agent has asked for in contracts, like, “You can ask for that??”), or how sometimes even if people you trust tell you to sign something, you probably shouldn’t.
Once I started selling work, I also had to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be. Did I want to be a commercial writer putting out four books a year? Did I want to quit my day job and just work under lots of pseudonyms? Were there things I didn’t want to write about? Eventually I decided that I didn’t want to fit neatly into a genre, I wanted to make my own genre. I didn’t want people to read The Mirror Empire because it was an epic fantasy–I wanted them to read it because it was a Kameron Hurley book. That was the real end goal, I realized–I wanted to have the freedom to write what I wanted and take my whole audience with me because they trusted me from book to book. I didn’t want to be one of those authors that’s either stuck writing in the same universe forever because that’s all that will sell, or one who has to keep writing in every genre under every possible penname because nothing is working.
We spend a long time figuring out how to put together sentences, and because that’s such a long apprenticeship, and so few make it to the next level, we never learn the business until it’s too late.
Ryan: Of your many writing accomplishments, which one has held the most meaning for you?
Kameron: When what I write inspires people to change their lives for the better, that’s really satisfying. Oftentimes, it’s because of what I’ve written online about my life, or about business, or about writing. But reading my fiction also inspires people to tackle stories they never had the courage to tackle before because they thought they wouldn’t sell, or no one would read them.
Ryan: That’s wonderful. What project are you working on now?
Kameron: I’m hip-deep in writing my space opera, The Stars are Legion, of which my editor says, “It’s like Mad Max meets Henry V but aboard a world-sized Weyland-Yutani spaceship,” which gives you an idea of how awesome it’s been to work on. That one will be out in 2016.
I’m also working on edits for Geek Feminist Revolution, my essay collection out in May or June next year from Tor Books, and getting ready for the sequel to Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, to drop on October 6th. Early reviews have been great, so that’s always a good sign.
Ryan: Excellent. Thank you for taking your time with us. Readers, you can check out Kameron’s work on her blog or any of the links provided for her books.