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An Interview with Sean Stewart

Sean Stewart is the award-winning author of seven fantasy and science fiction novels. His 1998 novel Mockingbird is a finalist for this year's Nebula 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?

SS: 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, please!"

After that 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."

In other 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.

ACS: Growing up in Canada must have given you a very different take on America, so how does it manifest in your work?

SS: 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.

ACS: 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?

SS: Let me collapse this with the later question on research....

ACS: Clearly, many of your books have strong female characters. Do you take a different approach to writing about women then men?

SS: No, I take exactly the same approach to writing them.

It's sort 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.

ACS: Have you received positive feedback from your female fans?

SS: 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."

That, for a writer, is a touchdown with a two-point conversion. :)

ACS: 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"?

SS: 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.")

That said, 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.

The question 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 cover.

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."

ACS: Your last two books have focused more on magical realism.

SS: 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...

ACS: What inspired the move away from genre fantasy?

SS: 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 wood.

ACS: Which is more entertaining... being compared to Anne Tyler or Ursula Le Guin?

SS: 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 men."

ACS: Can we expect California dreaming next time out?

SS: 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".

To learn more about Sean Stewart and his work, check out his web page, or his author notes for his latest novel.


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