Mary Robinette Kowal, Art Director Emeritus for Shimmer, is never still for very long. She works as a professional puppeteer and voice actor, is the Vice President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and now has her first novel gracing bookstore shelves everywhere. Mary took time out of her busy schedule to talk with Shimmer about that new novel, Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010), “the fantasy novel that Jane Austen might have written.”
1. Shades of Milk and Honey has been described as Pride and Prejudice with magic. What drew you to the Regency timeframe?
I love Jane Austen and at the time I was reading Persuasion. I wondered why no one was writing these intimate family dramas in fantasy.
2. Can you explain some about the process of selling your first book? Was this the first book you wrote and tried to sell?
This is the fourth book I’ve written and the second one I’ve tried to sell. Mostly it involves a lot of waiting. I got very lucky and have a wonderful agent who does all the hard work of actually sending it out. With the first novel, I was sending it to publishers on my own and that takes forever.
3. One of your short stories (“First Flight“) involves a time machine. If you could travel back in time to the Regency period, what would you do? Where would you go? Who would you seek out?
First of all, I’d disguise myself as a man. Ladies had better clothes but not enough freedom of movement for my taste. Since I’ll still sound like a modern American, I’ll study with an local acting teacher first to try to blend in. Once I feel comfortable there, I’ll do a tour of the continent. In particular, I’d like to see the shadow puppeteer Seraphin in Paris.
4. Did working with Shimmer and getting a behind the scenes look at how a magazine comes together impact your approach to your own fiction?
Absolutely. Reading slush helped me understand what editors mean when they say things like a story “doesn’t rise above.” There are a lot of stories that are unflawed but also not doing anything more than telling a competent story. It’s still an elusive idea, but time reading the slush pile definitely helped with that.
5. Puppetry, travel, vice president of the SFWA…how do you balance everything you do and still make time for writing?
Honestly? Structured procrastination. It’s much easier to justify putting something off if there’s another thing that is more pressing. If you manage them right, generally it’s possible to use the urge to flee to get everything done.
6. Finish the sentence: “I wish I could _____.”
I wish I could take a nap, now.
7. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given? Alternatively, what’s the worst?
Kristine Kathryn Rusch said that the manuscript is the tool with which you are telling the story in your head. Sometimes, you’ve picked the wrong tool. The problem is with the manuscript and it is not a precious thing. The worst advice was to put all five senses on every single page. I wound up with a story that was incomprehensible and put my instructor, who’d told me to do that, to sleep.
8. What favorite book do you wish you could forget, so you could have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again?
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
9. What was the most frustrating thing about writing Shades of Milk and Honey?
When I realized that the plot had taken a wrong turn and that I’d need to throw out 20,000 words. Bear in mind that I’m an outliner, and yet still. I needed to toss those chapters and re-outline based on what I was discovering as I was writing.
10. What do you know now that you didn’t know before the writing and publication of Shades of Milk and Honey?
The word “check” only means “stop” in 1814. So it wouldn’t be used in the sense of “I shall check on the strawberries” since that would mean “I will stop the strawberries.”
11. Among your collection, which is your favorite typewriter? Or, is there one out there that you love but haven’t yet been able to acquire?
I have a Duotone Royal that has a sans serif font. It’s a beautiful maroon and black machine. The one that I’m still looking for is the typewriter I let get away. It was a Corona #3, folding typewriter, in Oxblood red.
12. Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility?
Sense and Sensibility.
13. When can readers expect the sequel, Glamour in Glass, to hit shelves? Any sneak peeks?
It comes out in early 2012. Here are the opening lines, “There are few things in this world which can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party. Finding oneself a guest of honour, only increases the presentiment of unease, should one be disposed to such feelings.”