In Civilized Society: A Conversation with Kameron Hurley
I first learned of Kameron Hurley’s work when Jeff VanderMeer wrote about God’s War as one of his top books from 2011 in a piece for Locus. He referred to the novel’s “fascinating insect-based tech” and “unique cultural underpinnings,” which pretty much sold me right there. He also noted that Hurley’s prose was “muscular,” which further intrigued me. For readers who don’t know the series, I’ll add that Nyx, the protagonist, is a character with whom it’s impossible not to develop a relationship—though I won’t say of what type.
As someone who enjoys non-fiction related to science fiction, I was (doubly?) impressed when, at the most recent WorldCon, Kameron was awarded with two Hugos for her non-fiction: one for Best Fan Writer and one for Best Related Work, for her essay “ ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.” You can find this piece, and much else besides, in her non-fiction collection, We Have Always Fought: Essays on Writing, Craft and Fandom (2014).
These days whenever I download the latest copy of Locus, one of the first things I do is click through to see if there’s a new commentary piece by Kameron—they are invariably impassioned and thought-provoking.Kameron Hurley is the two-time Hugo awarding winning author of The Mirror Empire and the science fantasy noir God’s War Trilogy. The trilogy earned her a Kitschy Award for best Debut Novel, Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Nebula and Locus Award nomination. She has lived in Washington, Alaska, Ohio, Chicago, and Durban, South Africa. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, EscapePod and Strange Horizons, as well as the anthologies Year’s Best SF, The Mammoth Book of SF by Women, andThe Lowest Heaven. Her work has been translated into Romanian, Swedish, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. She also writes a regular column for Locus Magazine and blogs at kameronhurley.com.
You’ve described science fiction as being better at inspiring rather than predicting the future. Are there any specific SF/F works that helped inspire you when you were young? If so, what were they, and how did that inspiration manifest?
My first career aspiration was to be an astronaut. Like a lot of kids growing up in the 80’s I found myself in a culture still stuffed full of interest in the stars, fueled by the legacy of the Cold War. We still broadcast shuttle launches. People still cared. Star Trek films and old episodes played endlessly in my household, and Star Trek: The Next Generation was gaining steam. I sat up watching apocalypse and dystopian movies, too, Mad Max and Cyborg and Neon City and Robocop, which reminded me I’d need a little more grit in the face of a less hopeful future.
I came to written science fiction rather late, in my late teens and early twenties. And then I devoured old classics from Bester to Russ to Butler to LeGuin to Delany. Many of the technologies we see today were inspired by those earlier works; from the internet to our pocket computer/communication devices. Alas, I often feel some of our politicians took the grim social futures of those dystopian apocalypses as a guidebook as opposed to a warning, but—you win some, you lose some.
Can you say a few words about how the history of resistance movements, which you’ve studied academically, may have influenced your fiction and non-fiction?
I spent my undergraduate and graduate years immersed in the history of women’s roles in resistance movements, particular in Southern Africa. Digging into that uncovered a whole other history I hadn’t seen much of until then. That being the history where women did things instead of just having things done to them. It got me to start interrogating how we talk about women and people of color in our own history—are they the people being “helped” or “uplifted” (ha) by European men, or are they active participants in their own stories, fighting to perpetuate or simply maintain their cultural identity? It was my first real foray into a worldview outside the one I was spoon-fed by the wider American culture, and it forced me to challenge everything that came before and after it.
Naturally, that need to question assumptions and stories created by those with their own political agendas bled over into my fiction. I spend a lot of time asking if I’m just perpetuating lazy attitudes because I’ve swallowed them whole cloth or if I’m really interrogating and imagining something different. I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer. If I can’t unshackle myself from bad cultural programming, what hope is there?
You’ve observed that all writing is political. How do you balance an awareness of your own writing as political with your desire to tell an engaging, entertaining story?
The assumption here is that one can’t tell an engaging and entertaining story while being political. But I’d argue all of Bradbury’s work is political—those 1950’s housewife Martian women making breakfast while the husband reads the paper? That simple scene dumps a whole bunch of political assumptions on us immediately. And Orwell posits that a totalitarian communist state would be just horrible, a dystopia, which we accept without really questioning it. It was many years before I thought, well, why does it have to be horrible? Surely we can imagine a totalitarian communist state that some people actually really like? Goodness knows I often feel like we’re living in a capitalist dystopia. One person’s dystopia is another’s utopia, after all. And let’s not even get started with Ayn Rand.
But I understand what people are getting at when they ask me this question, because there’s certainly some old-school feminist science fiction that is just sort of people wandering around looking at plants, or thinking about how much better the world is now that they aren’t oppressed. But there are loads of really boring male power fantasy books where guys just wander around in space wishing they could actually feel emotions anymore while they shoot things, and we consider those deep and important books worth giving awards to, so clearly there’s a bit of a double standard there.
What I wanted to do was bring all the things I loved about feminist science fiction—new ways of organizing societies, challenging cultural mores, inventive marriages, complex families—and blend that with what I loved from a lot of other science fiction and epic fantasy; explosions, invaders, political maneuvering, angst, impossible odds, crazy magic, wild tech.
I’d like to say this isn’t a difficult thing to do, but having done it over four books now, I have to admit it’s really draining. You’re not only building a whole physical world with a new tech and/or magic system, but you’re creating wholly new societies, not just “Oh, these are the pseudo-medieval Europeans” or “Oh, these are the pseudo-medieval Japanese folks” but actually creating wholly new societies mashed up from bits and pieces of both historical societies and stuff you just make up yourself. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to reimagine and re-interrogate the world from the ground up, let me tell you.
But in the end, it’s very satisfying.
You just used the word “reimagine,” and it reminds me of an image I enjoyed in a recent non-fiction piece you published in Fantasy magazine: “I’ve reimagined cheese not as some pale lumps covered in pea sprouts but a full-on Spanish cheese sampler.” When you’re engaged in the creative process, do you do this primarily in the early planning stages of a story, or as you go, layer by layer? Has that process changed since you started?
I go layer by layer. The first pass through, my worlds read as pretty standard ones, I think. I came up with the first line to God’s War before I knew anything else about the world or the person except that Nyx was a bounty hunter and I wanted something set in the desert. So I had, “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert,” and then just started building the world from there. I didn’t create a map until I was a good hundred pages into the novel, when it seemed like something that might stick. It took four years to write a draft, but the real magic happened in the re-writing. I’d go back through my research notes and add in details about how people lived and dressed; I added in air raids and acid guns.
I’m writing the sequel to The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant right now, and it’s mostly dialogue and fight scenes at this point. There are some key plants—a giant living mountain that eats people, and a scene where a plant devours someone from the inside out—but for the most part, the real sticky details regarding social interactions and flora and fauna will come in during the final few passes.
So that layer-by-layer process is something that hasn’t really changed for me the last few years. If I tried to write really detailed worldbuilding and weird cultures on the first pass, I don’t think I’d ever finish a draft. But once you have a draft in place, it’s a lot easier to layer all the rest of that over the story. I also think that’s one reason I’ve been able to avoid having the world totally overtake the story, which is a common problem people see in fantasy especially—the story and characters come first, and then the world gets layered on over the top. The worldbuilding is always the scene-setting for the story, the story doesn’t just exist to showcase the world.
Your passion comes through in everything you write. How have you managed to keep your passion alive and prevent burnout over the years, through the practical vicissitudes of a writing career?
I’ve only been writing a book a year since 2011, so let’s not rule out burnout yet! Avoiding burnout has been tremendously difficult. Not because of the actual writing, but the business side of writing—contracts, promotion, marketing, business wrangling, publishing relationships. Keeping up with all of that on top of the book a year, and all of that on top of a day job, has been a terrifying balancing act, and I don’t always manage it.
I spend a lot of time scheduling set amounts of time for particular activities. Like, this two months is for promotion, and this six months is for writing. When I’m in promo mode I do very little writing, and when I’m in writing mode, I do very little promo. To be honest, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do a book a year. I’m contracted through 2018 to write a book a year, so, maybe until 2018. Ha!
You’ve talked about having to find ways to hack your own process to work faster, since you have a day job etc. What are some successful hacks you’ve discovered that you can share with us?
I read Rachel Aaron’s “2k to 10k” where she talks about how she hacked her writing process so she can now write up to 10,000 words a day. She has a lot of helpful advice about finding the right time of day, and logging your word count, but the best advice I found was to write a few sentences about the scene you’re sitting down to write before you write it. I’m a very organic writer, and my outlines are pretty loose. Unfortunately, that means I can often spend my entire writing time writing page after page of two characters talking about tax law over tea. And that’s just not . . . terribly interesting. It also isn’t going to get the novel done faster.
Setting down a few sentences before I write each scene was a nice compromise for me between serious outlining and just letting things happen as they happened. I didn’t have to write down what would happen in every chapter beforehand, or stick rigidly to a massive outline, but I did need to ensure that when I sat down to write, all of the major events in those two or three sentences happened within that scene. It made it a lot easier to move the plot forward with every scene, instead of spending page after page figuring out what I wanted to say and then cutting out all the rest later.
How does it feel to have won two Hugo awards recently for your non-fiction?
Surreal, still. They haven’t arrived yet, so I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, believe it or not. The Hugo was the one award I figured I’d never win. It’s an award made by popular vote, and folks in the industry had told me for a long time that I was a niche writer. But the community as a whole has been very supportive of the work I do, both the fiction and nonfiction, and that’s been very gratifying. It makes the tough days worth it.
Your three Bel Dame Apocrypha novels—God’s War (2011), Infidel (2011), and Rapture (2012)—are in the New Weird tradition. Your latest novel, The Mirror Empire (2014), the first in your new Worldbreaker Saga, seems to be closer to epic fantasy. Is that right? What led you from one sensibility to the other?
I wrote many drafts of what would become The Mirror Empire before I wrote God’s War. I’d tried to sell The Mirror Empire first, but had very little interest. It was 200,000 words back then, very wordy, with very little plot. The characters were the same, but the magic system felt more like something out of The Wheel of Time and the societies were much more clearly pseudo-medieval. There was simply nothing about the book that stood out in the marketplace. It read a lot like a travelogue.
With God’s War I decided to blow open the doors on what I thought I should write and just throw everything in there, since trying to play by the bland, boring rules wasn’t getting my work published anyway. God’s War has magicians and aliens and shapeshifters and spaceships. So though it’s on the SF side, it’s certainly not a world anyone would say was rooted in scientific fact.
When I revisited The Mirror Empire after I finished the Bel Dame books, I decided to take the same approach of just throwing in everything I loved instead of holding back and trying to write something everyone else was writing. So there are parallel worlds and swords and satellites and blood mages. I don’t much believe that there’s a difference between science fiction and fantasy, and that shows up in what I write. When I choose a marketing bucket for a particular book, I just choose the genre it looks the most like instead of trying to explain how it’s a mash-up. People have a real aversion to genre mash-ups, at least if you market them that way.
The funny thing is that for years and years I tried to write very safe sorts of books and stories because those were the books I’d see on the shelves. When I started reading weirder books and let myself just write what I wanted to write instead of feeling like I should write what other people wanted me to write, well, that’s when I finally started selling my work reliably.
I’ve heard you say that when someone gets caught up in whether your work is science fiction or fantasy, you tell them, “It’s ThunderCats!” If you could be a ThunderCats character, who would you pick, and why?
I admit I’ve always been partial to Lion-O, who reminds me a lot of the character of Ahkio in The Mirror Empire—this sort of reluctant, nice-guy leader hero who means well, but maybe could use a little more wisdom, and looks to solve problems through happy resolutions instead of violence, mostly.
I wouldn’t say he’s at all like me in the least, but being a nice person who can help resolve people’s problems without wanting to whack them in the head is something to aspire to in civilized society.
Or so I hear.