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    Interview with Lois McMaster Bujold
Interview by Tina Morgan
   



















 


On Saturday, August 11th 2001, I had the pleasure of meeting Lois McMaster Bujold, at a book signing in Dayton, Ohio. She spoke for some time about her new novel, 'The Curse of Chalion' and answered all questions presented to her. One of which was, 'Will there be another Miles Vorkosigan novel?' For fans of the series, the answer was: 'Yes'. If all goes as planned, Baen and Ms. Bujold are expecting the book to be released in the spring of 2002.

The following interview was conducted on-line and not at the signing. Again I want to thank Ms. Bujold for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions. She has a very informative and easily navigated website at:
http://www.dendarii.com

Fiction Factor: What inspires you to write? Has that changed since your career as a writer started?

Lois McMaster Bujold: Well, of course I was a voracious reader first. That's the heart of it: as a writer, to re-create, for oneself and others, the pleasures of one's own experiences of reading beloved books. That's why so many embryo writers start out writing in imitation of their models. (Me, too. Although my Tolkienesque epic, embarked upon at age 15 and never finished, at least has the dubious distinction of having been written in Spenserian verse, the result of having read The Lord of the Rings and The Faerie Queene twice that year.) Moving into adulthood gave me more of an original center of self, grown through experience, out of which to write, and a growing desire to write my own stories, not anyone else's. The aspiration of being professionally published drove the sort of search for education, critique, and feedback every writer must somehow obtain, from whatever sources they can find to hand. Every writer I know is, ultimately, self-taught; fiction writing is the least regulated profession in the world.

So I was inspired to write because I love to read, and because stories pour through my head, welling up uninvited from wherever these thoughts come. But I do think that I stuck to the task through the hard parts because I was also driven by economic necessity, and in the hope of obtaining some kind of financial security for myself and my children. I had failed at too many things, or drifted into dilettantism, for far too long. I had to make this one work.

The mechanics of writing have, of course, become easier over time and with practice. Finding the burningly interesting ideas becomes harder, as I've used up the ones at the front of the queue, and I don't wish to repeat myself in terms of either plot or theme.

FF: Your first three novels were bought and published by Baen books, what prompted the decision to serialize the fourth, 'Falling Free' in Analog magazine?

LMB: I was an old Analog reader -- I had my first subscription to the magazine at age 13, back in the John W.Campbell, Jr. era. So I knew of the possibility of placing book-length work there, having read and loved its serials myself. I do very little short work, but I had tried a few short stories on Analog in the early 80's as I was trying to break in as a writer. I also submitted Ethan of Athos to Analog back when it first sold to Baen, and while it did not sell, I did pick up some useful information on Analog's serialization length, break-point, and lead-time requirements. (Less than 100,000 words, multiple break points needed, and really, really long, respectively.) Since Falling Free was very much a tribute to the Campbell-era fiction, as well as being my next chance to try for an Analog sale, I bundled it up and sent it off to Stan Schmidt myself, and this time, everything came together. Baen was kind enough to delay publication while the serialization ran through, and I picked up a lot of new readers thereby. I think the exposure I obtained in Analog was also important for the attention Falling Free garnered in the following year's awards, since it was both a Nebula winner and a Hugo nominee. No one can vote for a work they've neither seen nor heard about.

FF: Did you have an agent when you sold your first three books to Baen?

LMB: No. In fact, I had contracted my first seven books before I acquired an agent. This was bad in the short term, in that I was really ignorant about contracts, and also had no way to reach foreign markets. But it was good in the long run, because when I did finally go shopping for an agent, I was able to make a more informed choice -- and I was able to get my first pick, the estimable Eleanor Wood. We shook hands on my trip to New York City for that Nebula weekend where Falling Free won, in fact.

One of the things I discovered through this was that one's early mistakes need not be permanent. As new books came up, we were able to trade back to Baen for rights I had foolishly given away; in other words, we used new contracts to fix the old ones. Although this only works if one is selling to the same house, I suppose, there are also other ways early errors can be rectified by a good agent acquired later.

FF: You have won numerous Hugo and Nebula awards for your books and novellas are any of these more personally satisfying to you?

LMB: They were all pretty great, for different reasons. That first Nebula was important both to put me on the genre's radar, and as a boost to my own self-confidence. The dual win, both Hugo and Nebula, for the novella "The Mountains of Mourning" was a welcome validation to a work that I'd written mostly for my own satisfaction, that I wasn't even sure would pass as SF. Barrayar, likewise, had some personal and women's themes that I was glad to see gain acceptance. Mirror Dance was a large, quirky, and personal book that I was not sure would "take". I also figured that there seemed to be a tacit term limit to Hugos, since only one writer had ever won more than two for best novel, and that Mirror Dance would have to compete not only against the other books up that year, but also against all my own prior wins. The awards ordeal has taught me an important lesson. The works that I wrote most to please myself, and least with half an eye on the market, also have done the best.

FF: When you wrote 'Shards of Honor' did you envision the Vorkosigan series growing to over ten books? Did you have a preconceived outline for the series or is each book developed separately?

LMB: When I wrote Shards, I was working though so many learning curves, I wasn't even thinking about what might come next. Now, by the time I wrote The Warrior's Apprentice, the lure of the series was beginning to take hold; I remember mumbling some not-quite-a-joke about a decology to my Baen editors Jim Baen and Toni Weisskopf over a Worldcon meal in 1986. My structural model for the most satisfactory sort of series was the Hornblower books; each volume a stand-alone story that, when put together, gave the over-arcing biography of a character's life. This seemed to me to provide all of the pleasures of a series, the ability to tell a large story over a huge range, with fewer of the readerly frustrations that go with not being able to find missing parts in the bookstore or library at any given moment.

I do not have an outline for the series; each book is plotted, and by preference contracted, separately. I joke that I don't know any more about what is happening next in Miles's life than he does. This also, by the way, gives me the artistic freedom to walk away from the series at any time, or to take breaks. I took advantage of this in 1999 to go a year without a contract and write my new fantasy, The Curse of Chalion, on spec.

The Curse of Chalion, by the way, is just now out (August 2001) from a new publisher, Eos/HarperCollins. Sample chapters are up at
http://www.eosbooks.com for anyone who wants a sneak preview. I'm wildly excited about it. There are two new interviews discussing it at length, which we've just posted on my own website at http://www.dendarii.com -- a short, written one at http://www.dendarii.com/explorations.html and a longer one, transcribed from a recent radio interview, at http://www.dendarii.com/wtbbl.html

FF: Many of Baen's book covers are very glossy and metallic, have you had any input on your book covers? Are you satisfied with the covers and do you think they have helped your overall sales?

LMB: Covers are an on-going problem, not least because no matter what you do, you can never please everyone. I've had lots of input on some covers, none on others; but my having input has never yet actually resulted in a better cover, so I've pretty much given up trying. The foil is more or less mandatory these days to try to mark a book as "important" -- not to readers, but to the wholesalers, who put in their orders more by covers and publisher pitches than by reading the content.

The covers I've had have attracted some readers, and acted as an impenetrable barrier to others. Probably the most important thing for a writer's career over time, then, to gain new readers, is to have a variety of covers. Unfortunately, this also works against a publisher's desire to give a writer's books a unified "look" that they can train old readers to reach for. Go figure. The cover for the new fantasy from Eos is in a fresh style for me, I think; it remains to be seen if it catches any new eyes.

I adore the advent of on-line sample chapters, not least because they allow my books to sell on the basis of their words instead of their packaging.

FF: When it comes to promotion, what lengths have you gone to in order to increase reader-awareness of your work?

LMB: Being my own PR flack has certainly been educational, although it's also time and energy consuming. These concerns are at the top of my thoughts this week because I'm just back from a short publisher-sponsored book signing tour for The Curse of Chalion that took me to Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, and Dayton, Ohio. It was a wonderful trip, but was it effective? I can't tell. Of course, for a science fiction or fantasy writer, the first promotional opportunities encountered are the science fiction conventions, as a panelist and, one hopes, eventually a high-profile guest. Be a good guest, and you'll get scouted by other conventions, and invitations will multiply. Nevertheless, fandom is a bit of a closed system, and only represents a small fraction of the book-buying public. There is nothing more discouraging for a writer to hear from a fan, eight or nine months after a book has been published, languished on the bookstore shelves, and finally been packed up and sent back to the warehouse -- or, in the case of paperbacks, pulped -- than a cry of, "Oh! You have a new book out? I never knew you had a new book out! Where can I buy it?"

Lately, on-line activity -- such as this very interview -- has provided opportunities for writers to get the word out in a timely way about their books. Baen Books has been doing some very innovative things with their website to obtain on-line exposure for their writers. The publishers' mantra used to be, "Books are their own advertising". In other words, the only way a reader could discover a book existed was to see it, already out in a store someplace. But the internet, for the first time, has allowed information about books to move separately from the books themselves; it's getting harder (although it's still possible) to publish a book in secret. This, and high-speed net-based word of mouth, actually allows readers to find out about, and ask for, books that weren't necessarily pre-chosen to be hot by the middlemen powers that be.

The real secret seems to be to get the readers to do your promoting, out of love for your books. There are more of them, they are more widespread, and they have more time and, God knows, more energy. Word of mouth is the top reason books are sold. Alas, it's a form of promotion money can't buy; you have to receive it as a gift from heaven. Good covers run a close second, but again, that's not something the writer can control even when they try. In my genres of science fiction and fantasy, having stories in the magazines might be third. Reviews dead last, except perhaps those in library journals; the library market is the only one that buys most of their books from reviews.

FF: A debate has been raised in a writing group I belong to, how important are high profile author blurbs when it comes to sales of your book? What is your opinion on the subject and have you ever received praise from another author or book reviewer that has strongly affected either you personally or your writing?

LMB: I think that readers are largely indifferent to blurbs. The place they seem to be important is during the pre-selling phase, when the publishers must first sell their books to the middlemen, bookstores and chains and wholesalers like Ingram's or Baker & Taylor. Remember, most of these key people must order books by their packaging. It's not humanly possible for them to read the hundreds and hundreds of titles that are thrown at them.

Selling any book falls into two periods. The first phase takes place months before the book is published, out of sight of any reader, when the publishers send their sales people out to take orders from their real customers -- not you and me, but the aforementioned middlemen. Only after those orders are collected is the size of the print run set. So to an appalling degree, the level of success any book can obtain is set before anyone reads it. If orders are low, the book will never have a chance to find readers through store placement, or ever get near any best seller list. It's like a glass ceiling; breaking through it seems almost impossible.

Good reviews are always heartening, bad ones depressing. Curiously, the few bad ones manage to be far more excoriating than the ten or twenty good ones are uplifting. There's a psychological study in there somewhere, I'm sure.

FF: Do you foresee a future in the Electronic Publishing field, and do you have plans to head in this direction?

LMB: I have no idea how that market is going to develop. For the moment, I am riding along with my own print publishers' experiments in that direction. I don't foresee self-publishing electronically at this time.

FF: What piece of parting advice would you give to aspiring authors?

LMB: Write what you are passionate about, rather than trying to write "to the market". After all, if you try to write what you think others will like, and its flops, it will have been an absolute waste of your time; worse, if it succeeds, people will want you to write more of the same, not what your heart is set upon. If you love your work, there is more of a chance that others will too, and you are more likely to produce your best work -- which will create its own market, the mad gods of luck and publishing willing.

LMB, 8/15/2001




 














   
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