Neither Here Nor There: A Conversation with Cat Rambo
I first discovered Cat Rambo’s work with the tightly coiled “Worm Within,” which got under my skin in a serious way. Ever since then I’ve kept an eye out for her remarkable stories, and I’m sure that over the years—my reality-bound ophthalmologist to the contrary—this has enhanced if not my vision then at the very least my sense of perspective.
These days whenever I’m at conventions I make it a point to attend whatever writing-related panels Cat is on, as she’s a veritable fount of useful, experience-based advice, always leavened with humor. Somewhat surprisingly, the conversation below was our first lengthy exchange.
Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest, with occasional peregrinations elsewhere. A World Fantasy Award and Nebula nominee, she has 200+ fiction publications, which have appeared in Asimov's, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld, as well as in audio form and a dozen different languages. She is the current Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Check her website for links to her fiction and information about her popular online classes.
You’ve been publishing short fiction prolifically since around 2005 and Beasts of Tabat, just released, is your debut novel. Did you see yourself as going through some kind of craft apprenticeship by writing those 200+ short stories, a way of building up to a novel, or was it not planned that way?
It wasn’t planned that way at all. My plan was to get out of Clarion West in 2005 and write a just absolutely killer novel that would set the world afire. But while I was at Clarion West, every once in a while someone would say to us, “Some of you won’t write after the class.” Or, “Some of you will be so busy processing that you’ll be totally blocked for months.” And worse, “Some people never write again.” My response was pretty much, “Fuck that!”
I came out of Clarion completely determined not to do that and I started a novel immediately. For two months after Clarion West I also made myself write a short story a week, and one of the things I’d learned is that you send stuff out, so I would send the stories out. I kept working on the novel, and some of the stories hit. A year and a half went by and I was still working on the novel and my husband said, “Do you think possibly you may need to put that aside for a while and work on something else?” I was just beating my head against this thing. So I did write something else, and then came back to the novel, and so on. I’ve been working on Beasts of Tabat in one form or another since 2005!
Those forms have been very different. An early version of the book, for example, was set in the school that is featured in Beasts of Tabat, the Brides of Steel, but it involved two of the students, because at the time I was thinking in terms of YA. And then this instructor who was one of the gladiators sort of swaggered in and demanded that the story be hers—and that was my introduction to Bella Kanto, who’s half of the current book. I may go back and write from the point of view of those two students at some point and pick up that YA story, because even though it’s a different plotline I know where it fits into the events of Beasts of Tabat.
Most of my Tabat stories do in fact link in to each other. When I was going back to them and also writing this version, thinking of it as the first volume of a quartet, I realized that one of the stories spells out the final arc, another spells out a side character’s backstory, and so on. In a sense the prewritten stories—and the ones yet to be written—are like a fifth, shadow volume to go alongside the quartet of novels.
Speaking of short stories, can you tell us a little about your experiment with Patreon?
I started doing it because my husband and I were going to go on a lengthy road-trip. I had a big backlog of stories because I’m fairly prolific and I didn’t want to have to fuss with having to send stuff out while on the road. So I set up a Patreon campaign, and it’s been pretty good. I know I can write a story, put it up, people will like it, and I will get money for it, which is really nice.
One reason I’m keeping the Patreon campaign going is that one day I’d like to have my own spec fic magazine, if I can get to the funding levels needed and the Patreon campaign keeps swelling. It may take several years. Or maybe I’ll find another route. But I’d really like to do a magazine at some point.
That’s exciting. I have to say I loved the design of your collection Near + Far, which has two front covers and can be read starting from either end, like the old Ace doubles. What made you pick that particular design?
I originally had been talking to a friend, Tod McCoy with Hydra House here in Seattle, about publishing with his house. I’d first thought of doing this collection as a two-volume set, because I was in love with little box sets. I thought we could do a tiny box set and it would be really cool, one volume for near future stories, one for far future. Then at some point I was thinking about Ace doubles, and I realized we could not have as many stories but have it as one book that you could open from both sides. I remember thinking at the time that the idea was genius. I called up Tod and said, “I’m a genius! Are you sitting down? This is sooo good, it’s going to blow you away!” Two weeks later I’m at the dealer’s room at Norwescon and there, of course, is someone who has already done a double-sided book.
I like Near + Far because among other things Tod went and looked at hundreds of the old Ace double covers and if you look at it, you can see that he pulled in some of the design elements from those. He really tried to give it that feel.
And we’re doing a sequel.
Near + Far gathered primarily science fiction stories. Will the sequel focus more on fantasy?
Yes, it’s a fantasy companion volume to Near + Far. It’s called Neither Here Nor There. One side is secondary-world fantasy stories, and the other side is fantasy in our own world. We’re shooting for a Fall release date; I think it’s coming out in October.
I’m really pleased with it. I actually pitched it a couple of years ago, but it took a little while for it to come together. Tod just needs to relax and realize that I’m a genius and he should just do what I like.
Can you tell me a little about your connection with John Barth, who gave you a great blurb when he described your writing as “works of urban mythopoeia”?
When I first went off to grad school, I went to the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins. I was a member of the last graduate class that John Barth taught before he retired. I adored him. He was wonderful. There was a fellowship that I was up for, and what you quoted was part of his recommendation.
I’ve always liked that blurb very much. It’s John Barth! I send him a copy of each of my books and I always get this nice postcard back that says something like, “Well, this is not exactly my cup of tea, but good job!”
How has your work for SFWA influenced your perception of the science fiction community?
I’d learned early on, when I was at Hopkins, that just because someone is a terrific writer that doesn’t mean that they’re a terrific human being. It’s one of those shattering lessons, where you’re like, “Oh crap!” It’s sometimes sad, when it’s somebody whose work you really like.
But the thing I have learned from being at SFWA is that the pay-it-forward ethos is just pervasive in the science fiction and fantasy culture, in a way that is truly amazing to behold. And in my experience it wasn’t that way in literary fiction at all. There it was more like, “Here come the new people, let’s try to kill them before they get a novel published.”
In science fiction I think people are much kinder, much gentler. Of course this is a sort of ironic moment to be saying this, because we’re seeing some really horrible, contentious controversies going on right now. I don’t really know what to say about all of that, except that I believe, at heart, that fandom is kind and gentle and inclusive. Kindness will prevail.
Talking about the generosity of the field: your various roles within science fiction and fantasy have put you in touch with plenty of up-and-comers. Any new voices you’d like to recommend or single out?
I’m going to point to a number of them. One of them is Usman Malik, who is on the Nebula ballot this year. He came through my class and I already warned him that I would now take credit for everything that he does because he was one of my students. Kristi Charish just published an urban fantasy novel, with more in the pipeline. Jamie Lackey would be another writer to watch. Julia Rios, who is now one of the editors of Strange Horizons. I also count her as one of mine—I’m ruthless, once they’ve come through my class, I claim them forever. When I’m teaching online I see them as little boxes on my screen, but it’s always lovely to see them at the cons later.
You edited Fantasy Magazine with Sean Wallace from 2007 to 2011. Did editing take away some of your writing energy?
Oh yeah, definitely. One of the things that was very nice for me when I started working with Fantasy Magazine was that Edmund Schubert, who was working on Intergalactic Medicine Show, spent some time on the phone with me and said, “You have to realize that the same part of your brain that is the writing part is also the editing part.” When I was editing Fantasy one of the things I was very clear about in interviews was that I always thought of myself as a writer first. I didn’t want to become an editor primarily. Though I enjoy editing greatly, I wanted to be a writer more than an editor. Creating my own stuff is very important to me.
Has editing Fantasy affected how you approach writing your own fantasy stories?
Other than inspiring an irrational hatred of pirates, I think it’s made me a better writer because it’s made me articulate my philosophy of writing. To give someone good feedback you have to say the belief that you feel they are violating or not violating. Teaching is the same way. In order to explain something you have to understand it. In fact I think teaching is one of the best things for my writing.
You teach close to twenty different classes on all aspects of writing and career management, from how writers can build an online presence to literary techniques for genre fiction, a class out of which was born Rachel Swirsky’s Hugo-winning story, “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love.” How do you decide what to teach, and who were some of the teachers that helped you when you were starting out?
I want to clarify that on the spec fic techniques class, Rachel was just sitting in on the class and having fun playing with ideas; I don’t know that I have anything to teach Rachel, she’s just amazing.
I started teaching writing science fiction and fantasy stories because I was teaching for a local college and I had a lot of people asking me about those particular genres. When Google Hangouts popped up I thought it was cool and started using that.
The reasons I’ve added classes are because someone has proposed or requested them, or because they’re based on classes I’ve taught before. The class on delivery and description, for example, is one someone had asked me for, but the flash fiction class is based on a class I taught at Hopkins. The literary techniques class is actually one I originally taught as a one-day Clarion West workshop. I test classes, and if there’s not a lot of demand for something I tend to drop it off the roster. This April and May I’m teaching a really limited slate, and it’s because I knew I wouldn’t have much time and I picked my very favorite classes to teach.
Regarding my own teachers: at Clarion West I was lucky enough to have Octavia Butler, Andy Duncan, Connie Willis, Gordon Van Gelder and Michael Swanwick. Amazing people. And after that, I kept taking one-day workshops around here. I took one with Paul Park, one with John Crowley. Karen Joy Fowler also had a fantastic class.
Andy, Connie, and Michael have been very kind in being mentor figures too. Michael in particular I email periodically; I’ll say something angst-ridden, and he sort of pats my head and he says, “Go back to writing,” and I say, “Thank you.” I outsource my anxieties to him and he knows just what to say!
Karen Joy Fowler wrote that your own descriptions are “gorgeous.” Fine attention to sensory detail was one of the things that first drew me to your stories. Are you particularly conscious of descriptive passages in your work? Who are some of the authors you feel excel at description?
Yes, I do pay a lot of attention to description. Part of it is that when I was at Hopkins I took a fabulous class that was specifically on description, in which we read Colette, Kawabata, Nabokov and others. We were looking very carefully at individual passages. I still sometimes copy out passages if I really love them.
So who do I love for description right now? Certainly Catherynne M. Valente. She’s got that prose that’s juicy and beautiful—like eating tangerines. Dorothy Dunnett, who wrote historical fiction. Delany would be another one. I was just looking at Babel-17 again recently. He manages a page’s worth of description in a single line. He’s just found that single, beautiful detail; it’s like a fractal, and everything crystallizes out from it.
The Beasts of Tabat is the first in a projected quartet. Why four novels rather than, for example, a trilogy? Do you know how the overall story ends? How much planning did you do before you sat down to write the first novel?
Originally I did think it would be a trilogy. A lot of people write fantasy trilogies, after all. But then I realized there was too much stuff I wanted to cover, and the structure that I wanted to do didn’t work with a trilogy. The structure is an odd one: the second book starts midway through the first book, and follows two different characters throughout the entire book, and then the third book starts in the middle of that book, and then the fourth book is going to be this cavalcade of stuff.
The fourth book, Gods of Tabat, isn’t written but I do know what’s going to happen. I know the overall plotline, I know certain moments, and I know pretty much what will happen to each major character. There’s a lot of side characters I’m still not sure about, in terms of where they’ll be. Book three, Exiles in Tabat, is an inchoate mass right now. Book two, Hearts of Tabat, is pretty much totally plotted and about half-way written. I hope to turn it in by July. This is one of the advantages of being with a small press; we could actually see volume two out this year. That could make for a great publishing schedule. It’s satisfying and a little frightening at the same time.
Were there previous attempts at novel-writing?
Yes, there were several. My first was a YA story. It’s about a heroine who is this reluctant champion of Faerie and also just happens to be a little chubby. People keep getting bitchy about it and she says, “Screw you. This is who I am.” My first agent shopped it around and no one wanted to buy it. I do want to go back and rewrite it one day—I suspect I’ve learned enough things that I could make it more sellable now. Then I gave my agent a different book, a paranormal romance, and she shopped that around and no one wanted to buy it either. I’m kind of glad it wasn’t picked up because I’m not very happy with it.
I also started writing an urban fantasy called The Easter Bunny Must Die, with a world a little like the world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I got halfway through that and will probably go back and finish it at some point.
With Beasts of Tabat, I’m conscious that this is the sort of book I’d like to be known for. I’d like to think it’s a good, interesting fantasy novel, and has some serious stuff at its heart too.