Consciousness as Story: A Conversation with Ann Leckie
Ann Leckie is the author of Ancillary Justice (2013) and Ancillary Sword (forthcoming, October 2014). She has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer. She lives in St. Louis Missouri.
I was fortunate enough to interview Ann in London, just two days before she won the 2014 Hugo award for Best Novel for Ancillary Justice, which has also received the 2014 Arthur C. Clarke and Nebula awards.
I wanted to start by asking you about your early experiences with short fiction. You leaned more towards the fantasy side of the spectrum (you had several stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, for example). Can you talk a little bit about the shift in your focus from fantasy to science fiction?
In fact, it has kind of gone back and forth. When I was starting as a writer I wrote two novels actually, that are in a drawer, and they’re science fiction. They’re both set in the same universe as Ancillary Justice. I decided that maybe I should focus on short fiction, and there were a bajillion reasons for it. There’s no reason any novelist should feel like they have to do short fiction, but I decided I wanted to try, so I read a whole lot of it. I went to Clarion West, which also focuses on the short form. At the time I was only writing science fiction. I didn’t have any fantasy ideas, and I didn’t think of myself as a fantasy writer. But somehow I started writing fantasy stories anyway, and it turns out that editors, who weren’t buying my science fiction stories, started buying my short fantasy. So I focused on fantasy, which is why almost all my short fiction is fantasy.
Did you consider becoming a fantasy novelist, as a natural outgrowth of your fantasy short fiction?
I did flirt with the idea, yes. In fact, I had at least one friend who thought I should. When I told her I was going to sit down and write a new novel, and that it was going to be science fiction, she said, “I’d love to read a fantasy novel by you written in your fantasy universe.” But back when I wrote those two shelved novels I mentioned, I had already had the idea for Ancillary Justice—and honestly, I was afraid to write it. So for a while I ended up writing to the side of it instead. But the idea stayed with me for a long time, so when I decided to write the new novel, I knew I had to write that novel, and then see where I would go after that. That’s why I went to science fiction instead of continuing with fantasy. But it felt odd; it felt strange because there was a different vibe to it.
Have you considered going back to fantasy now?
I have considered it. Of course, now nobody knows me as a fantasy writer! I probably won’t write fantasy for the very next thing, but I might in the future. I like the universe I’ve built up, and it might be fun to approach it in a different way.
Going back again to an earlier part in your career, I wanted to talk a little about your editorial work on—Giga—Giga—
Yes, sorry, I was having trouble pronouncing it.
Actually, I could be mispronouncing it. It’s one of those things you read but don’t hear spoken. One day I was watching Chased by Dinosaurs or something similar, and the guy was calling it Jiga-notosaurus. I thought, “No, that’s not the name of my magazine! It’s giga-, not jiga. We don’t say jiga-byte, after all.”
Maybe he does. Chased by Jiga-bytes.
What drew you to work on the magazine? Were you there from its inception?
Yes. It was my project from the start. While I was concentrating on short fiction, I found that—probably unsurprisingly—I tended to write long. I trained myself to write shorter and shorter, just to learn how to do it. But a lot of my early stories were over ten thousand words. The number of venues that will accept submissions over ten thousand words long was minuscule. Even between seventy-five hundred and ten thousand, there weren’t very many. If you were looking for the most places to send a story, you were best off below six thousand words.
But there are stories that naturally need to be a longer length. Beyond the selfish “Gee, I wish there were more places to send my stories,” I thought it was fair to ask, “Who is publishing these longer stories?” That was the seed of the idea for opening up a magazine and filling that need. Which was followed by, “Yeah, right, like I’m going to start a new magazine.”
A short time later, my mom died, and she left me a little bit of money. I considered what to do with it. I paid off some bills, but still had some left. So I decided to set some aside and start up, essentially, a token-paying magazine, one hundred dollars a story, and running only one story a month. I thought I would make it available on the web, and also as a downloadable Epub file, for people who don’t like to read longer fiction on their computer screens and prefer their e-readers. So that’s what I did, and I’m pleased with the results. I think it’s been successful.
Considering it’s just one story a month, you’ve certainly received great critical notice.
I had two Nebula nominations the first year GigaNotoSaurus ran. I was completely floored by that. The next year there was another Nebula nomination. That was a Ken Liu story. Of course, Ken Liu is highly visible and totally awesome, but it was astonishing nonetheless. After thinking about it, I also realized that the story lengths might be working in our favor. Where was the competition? The very reason I opened the magazine was that few places were publishing such long stories. These are online, easily accessed. So it became a little bit less surprising. But even so.
The magazine is currently still going, by the way. I’ve handed over editorial duties to Rashida Smith. She’s been picking the stories and publishing them, while I’m formatting the ebooks and writing the checks.
Has this experience whetted your appetite for any other editorial projects—maybe anthology-related, or even possibly Ancillary Justice spinoffs?
The thought has crossed my mind. In GigaNotoSaurus it was just me reading slush, no assistants. The volume of submissions varied a lot. Sometimes it would be a dozen stories in a day, but it would ebb and flow, never predictable. I also read slush for PodCastle for a while, so I think I need a break from slush reading.
That said, there’s something really fun about finding a story you love and putting it in front of other people. So at some point, when I’m not tired of slush reading any more, I’m sure I’ll say, “Wouldn’t it be fun to edit again?”
Do you find that your work as an editor for the magazine and podcast in any way informed or helped you hone your craft when it came time to write your novel?
Probably. One of the things that looking in the slush pile gives you is the kinds of things that the work of writers who aren’t selling yet have in common. They’re the same kind of not-quite-fully-developed ideas. Once you see a critical mass of that, it’s easier to identify when you’re doing it yourself. Which I think is why sometimes people recommend to try and get a slush-reading position, if you can, when you’re starting out. Generally it’s a good idea, as long you’re not driven to madness by it.
I think I was saying this on a panel the other day. Nick Mamatas had a post about how oftentimes people are looking for slush reader positions, but there’s rarely a chance to advance and do actual editing, or guest-edit a particular issue of a magazine, and that’s really a shame. I agree, because half the fun is being able to say, “I picked this out, and you’re going to love it.” If you’re only slushing you may not get to do that.
Regarding Ancillary Justice, you’ve mentioned that the universe goes back a long time. What about the specific plot of the novel? Did you have that from the start as well?
The basic outline is old, but the plot wasn’t entirely planned out. The idea of ancillaries and multi-bodied characters is very old; the universe of Ancillary Justice, in fact, was built around the characters of Anaander Mianaai and Justice of Toren to a large extent. I’m not sure where the concept came from. I’ve been asked what made me think of multi-bodied characters, and I honestly have no idea. It just happened, and once it did, I constructed everything around it.
From initial concept to final finished product, it sounds like a lot of experiences went into the novel.
That’s right; it has a really long history. From the time I first attempted a draft, it took about six years. But I had been pondering it for maybe another five years before that. So going on a decade. I’m glad that when I wrote that first novel, I didn’t tackle the story I was afraid to write, because the world wasn’t as well developed. I sent out that early version to a couple of places, and it didn’t do anything. In retrospect, that was good—between then and now there’s been a lot of development that I think has been good for the novel.
So as far as plotter vs. pantser . . .
Totally pantser. I was accruing and reshaping material for a long time. This is how I’ve been working on the sequels to Ancillary Justice as well. I usually know where I want to end up, and I know several landmarks along the way. If I don’t know the landmarks, I panic, because I need to have those. The rest of my time is spent figuring out how I get from one landmark to another. I realize some people outline scene by scene, but I can’t even imagine doing that.
Is Ancillary Justice the first in an open-ended series of novels?
There are three novels in this set, and no, I don’t plan for it to be open-ended. Much as I love my main character—I would have to, considering how much time I’ve spent with her—I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where I’m endlessly producing a series of books just about this one character.
No Wheel of Justice then?
[Laughs] As a reader, I actually love ongoing series. For example, C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner novels; I think she’s working on book sixteen. As soon as each one comes out, I sit down and read it and I don’t do anything else all day, because I love them. It’s wonderful to go back to a world and to characters that I love. But as a writer, it would drive me bonkers! I want to do something different.
As you prepared to write Ancillary Justice, what kind of research did you do?
I did some research into AI, but discovered very quickly that it wasn’t going to be helpful for me, because I was treating it as a conceit. What I discovered that was more useful was related to psychology and neurology. Some of that was very creepy and weird. One of the questions raised by a character that has a bunch of bodies is, “Who is a person to begin with?”
You might think that’s a simple question, but it’s not. I don’t personally believe in the soul or something separate from your body. But if it’s all your brain/body, what could possibly inhabit someone else’s body? How would it work? I realized I was going to have to solve that problem for myself before I continued writing. It turns out—and this is where things get creepy—that particular sorts of brain damage can do really radical things to your identity and who you think you are. You can have brain damage, for example, that makes you think you’re dead. There are people walking around who have suffered from head injuries or strokes that will tell you, “I’m dead.” My grandfather, at one point, had a stroke and believed people around him had been replaced with people who looked just like them but weren’t. He believed my grandmother was an impostor. That was in the back of my mind when I was thinking about my novel.
I also checked out Suzanne Segal’s Collision with the Infinite: A Life Beyond the Personal Self from the library and read it. In it, Segal describes how she got on the bus one day and suddenly she felt her consciousness move out of her body. She spent two years hovering behind herself, and after that she became convinced she didn’t exist, that she wasn’t a person. Eventually she reconciled the state of lack of self with spiritual Buddhist ideas. Split-brain patients were also something I took an interest in.
They’ll say into one side of the patient’s brain, “Pick up something that matches this picture,” and the hand will pick it up. But then when they ask the other side, “Why did you pick that up?” they don’t know, but they’ll make something up. That really made me wonder, how much of consciousness is you making up a story about the things that you’re doing, but in reality it’s a bunch of other systems doing them? There’s no way to know that, and it’s creepy to think about.
What was it that originally attracted you to space opera as the particular storytelling kit you wanted to use to tell your story?
I’ve been reading science fiction since I was really young, and space opera was always my favorite. Spaceships, battles, that kind of thing. When I was kid, Andre Norton was my favorite writer. There was a library not too far from my house and every Saturday I would walk down to it and get my Andre Norton fix. At one point I had maybe seventy-five percent of everything she had written—and that’s a lot! I don’t know if her work influenced my novel in a specific way that I can point to, but I can’t believe that there isn’t some Norton there.
You’re currently writing the third volume in this series. What other projects are on the horizon?
I’d like to do more short fiction again. Even though I feel I’m more natural at longer lengths, I really enjoyed writing short fiction a lot. It’s also weird to be out of inventory, because when you’re focusing on short stories, you always have multiple things out there at once. When I ran out of material while working on Ancillary Justice I started to panic. Then I told myself, “Of course I don’t have anything else out right now. I’m just going to have to deal with that.” I recently told someone I would send them a short story for an anthology; whether I finish it on time, and whether they accept it or not, we’ll see. But it will be a science fiction story, and I’ll almost certainly set it in the novels’ universe. Ancillary Sword, the second novel, is coming out in October, and Ancillary Mercy will be the final book in this set. But I’ve worked long and hard on creating this universe, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it one day.