An Interview with Sean
is the award-winning author of seven fantasy and science fiction
novels. His 1998 novel Mockingbird is a finalist for this
award and was just released in a trade paperback format, and his
new novel, Galveston, is a March hardback from Ace. He
will sign Galveston at Adventures in Crime and Space Saturday,
April 8, 3:00-5:00 PM. Order a copy
of his new book for the signing.
ACS: You were in a writing group with William Gibson,
did you find the workshop experience beneficial?
This is a misapprehension. I was never in a workshop with Bill;
he was just nice to me. He came to the launch of Passion Play
and took me and a couple of my friends out for Greek food afterwards.
As the meal wound down, he in his circuitously gentlemanly manner
explained that he had this credit card for writing expenses and
his accountant said he wasn't using it enough, so would I mind
terribly if he paid? Before I could stammer out something either
pointlessly proud or incoherently grateful, my most socially alert
friend gestured imperiously for the waiter. "A bottle of retsina,
time, Bill and I might get together maybe once every six months
for lunch. He was always full of interesting, oblique advice,
and interesting oblique encouragement. (As for example, on noticing
a small feature on me in the local entertainment weekly, he remarked,
"Oh, good. That's the kind of publication you find someone reading
ten months from now in a laundromat in Kamchatka.")
It was Bill
who got me to read Roddy Doyle and especially Cormac McCarthy,
whose fingerprints are on several passages in The Night Watch.
He talked about late nights with Iain Banks and made the central
critical point about Banks, I think, when he said, gravely, "The
thing about Banks is, he's so absolutely fucking fearless."
words, Bill actually noticed me. He notices a lot of things,
but after the required years of toiling in utter obscurity, it
was enormously encouraging that I was one of them, and I have
never forgotten that kindness.
Growing up in Canada must have given you a very different take
on America, so how does it manifest in your work?
Mostly I just don't take America for granted. I still notice the
way the little man on the WALK sign leans forward here. I was
out of the country during the years when Reagan finally finished
the job of convincing Americans that there was no difference between
capitalism, democracy, and freedom. I still don't understand why
people who collect automatic weapons can't collect stamps instead.
Your books have a deep sense of place and geography. Is that why
the early books have a Western Canada feel and the newer ones
have a clear Texas feel?
Let me collapse this with the later question on research....
Clearly, many of your books have strong female characters. Do
you take a different approach to writing about women then men?
No, I take exactly the same approach to writing them.
of a depressing indictment of how far behind the feminist curve
we still seem to be that this alone is enough to get me singled
out in the Times as a writer of women.
Have you received positive feedback from your female fans?
Yeah, generally. But then, women are raised on the whole to be
more polite and diffident, so if the characters suck, they're
less likely to tell me so to my face. (In fact, the only time
I can remember being told one of my women wasn't a believable
woman, it was a man who said it. )
I do try
to get large numbers of women to read my books in manuscript,
especially if I worry (as I always do) about the authenticity
of the woman's voice.
I once got
stopped by a clerk in the bookstore who whispered to me that there
were things in the dreaded Chapter 8 of Mockingbird that
"I've never even told my best girlfriends."
a writer, is a touchdown with a two-point conversion. :)
How do you make the time to do the levels of research that are
apparent in your books? How much is personal experience and how
much is "book learning"?
I write full time. This is my job, so I don't really have the
excuse of not having enough time to do research (other than within
the economic constraints of "gotta get paid soon.")
I have traditionally tried to avoid research. Now I do more of
it, but not scattershot: I limit my research to those things I'm
really interested in, for whatever reason. So when I'm planning
a book, I spend a lot of time dowsing for things that catch my
fancy. If something in me says, "Yeah, it would be cool to know
how to play poker," then that becomes something I enter into the
hopper for the current book.
of research goes back to the question of geography. In both cases,
one really key factor is that you're trying to find a way to let
the world in. When you write entirely out of your own mind and
imagination, you quickly become repetitive. You only think the
things you would think of, if you see what I mean. Research and
physical setting are things that can give stories back to you
that you wouldn't have thought of yourself. In other words, research
and setting fulfills some of the same function for me that browsing
through Holinshed and Ovid gave Shakespeare. Swanwick once said,
"Writers aren't any more imaginative than anyone else; we just
know a good story when we see one." Research and setting are ways
of going out into the field with your waders and shotgun in the
hopes of bringing down a story should it happen to break from
I tend to
rely more on book learning for facts and incidents, using personal
experience to imagine the emotional responses of the characters.
So research supplies the "what happened", personal experience
the "how it felt and what it meant."
Your last two books have focused more on magical realism.
Do you think so? I thought Galveston was as flat out an
action-adventure SF/F book as I could write. My starting point
was stuff like the Ramayana and balinese shadow-puppet plays.
Poker! Masks! Cannibals! Storms at sea! False imprisonment! Disease!
A hero with a big sidekick! If that was quiet tasteful
magic realism, I must really be doomed...
What inspired the move away from genre fantasy?
It's not really wholly deliberate. It's more . . . Let me try
it this way. Critics often suggest that I am (to take a recent
example) "slyly subverting genre expectations." This suggests
a deliberate kind of gamesmanship, a manipulation of the forms
of fantasy. Really, it's not so intellectual a process as that.
It's more like making a fire. When you're rooting through the
wood from an old fire to build a new one, which side of the log
do you face toward the flames, the charred or the fresh? Not choosing
the side that's already been burned down to coals isn't something
you do to "slyly subvert firebuilding conventions"; you do it
because the untouched wood will catch easier and burn hotter.
If I'm moving
away from genre fantasy, it's mostly that I'm looking for fresher
Which is more entertaining... being compared to Anne Tyler or
Ursula Le Guin?
It's an enormous honor to be compared to Le Guin. But I have to
think it's more fun to be told that you've written "what could
have been an Anne Tyler book. Only with more giant talking shrimp
Can we expect California dreaming next time out?
Good guess. The book's done, it's called Last Will, and
it's set in L.A. It's about an aging punk who sees ghosts and
gets tangled up with a Hollywood starlet. My official Hollywood
pitch is, "The Great Gatsby meets The Sixth Sense".
more about Sean Stewart and his work, check out his web
page, or his author notes for
his latest novel.