We’d like to thank Mary Robinette Kowal and the fine folks at Tor for letting us feature her novels this month. In case you’ve missed any of the reviews, be sure to check them out here, here and here.
We sat down with Mary to discuss her affinity for vintage typewriters, the Regency era and how she manages writing despite an exhausting schedule.
Thanks again for chatting with us, Mary.
LS: OK, so what’s the deal with the typewriters? (We hear that you and your husband have 16 vintage typewriters and occasionally use them.)
When we met, I had one vintage typewriter — a Royal — and he had one. Then we were at a yardsale and there was a beautiful typewriter, which we bought together. Three suddenly was a collection. Periodically, we’ll spot another and pick it up, though we’re pretty specific about what we add. What I enjoy about typewriters is the way they combine beauty and utility in one package. It’s also easy to look at one and understand how it works, which is appealing at times.
When I chose to write on them, it’s usually because I’m looking for a change in rhythm. The mechanical nature of the typewriter leads to a subtly different story-telling style. I like to shake things up a bit sometimes.
LS: You grew up in the South, and have lived on the East Coast and the West Coast, as well as spending a few years in Iceland doing puppetry for the children’s show Lazytown. Now you live in Chicago. Do you like living in the Midwest? Does where you live have any influence on your work, other than whether or proximity to a major airport?
To be honest, I haven’t lived in Chicago long enough for it to start showing up in my fiction. We moved here less than a year ago and I’ve been on the road so much that I’ve probably only got four months of accumulated time here. I’m sure it will though, since the other places I’ve lived have found their way in. Sometimes that’s in the rhythm of language, such as the South, other times it is the environment, such as Iceland. In many ways, the wind here reminds me of Iceland where I often felt like a giant was pushing me along with a hand at my back.
LS: You seem to have really embraced the Regency era, not only setting your novels in that time, but also designing and creating period dresses with a real knowledge of appropriate fashion to the tiniest detail. Have you always been interested in this era, or did your research for your books pique your interest in other areas, as well?
I got sucked in by the research. I loved Jane Austen, and that led me to write the first book in the Glamourist Histories. As part of the research, I joined the Oregon Regency Society and went to a ball. I totally fell in love with the people. I’d never thought I would enjoy any sort of recreation or cosplay, since it seemed too much like work, given my background in theater. What I’m loving about making the costumes is that it is an opportunity to make something beautiful that isn’t work. I mean, I justify it by calling it research, but let’s be clear that it’s really a chance to stand around in a pretty dress, surrounded by other people who are beautifully clothed. It’s a nice break from reality.
LS: Although your three novels are set in the style of Jane Austen, you certainly don’t limit yourself to that genre in all your works. Are you ever worried that you will get pigeonholed as a “Regency romance” or “fantasy historical romance” writer (or some other category)?
Not really. My experience in theater matches up with what I see other authors go through in fiction. It takes five to ten years to establish a new puppet theater, during which time you have to do “names” like Snow Queen, or Pinocchio. Later, people will come see your shows because of the theater, but at first it’s because of the familiar. Once readers get to know an author’s work, they’ll follow because they know the sort of journey they’ll have.
I’m also being sneaky and writing stylistically different books within the confines of a Jane Austen inspired world. Shades of Milk and Honey is a straight ahead Regency Romance with magic. Glamour in Glass has a spy novel hidden inside it, and Without a Summer is hiding a political thriller. The fourth book, which comes out next year, we describe as “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven.”
LS: For many years you were a professional puppeteer, and not so long ago you stated that you think of yourself as a professional puppeteer who writes. But your writing career has really taken off. Would you now say that you are a professional writer who also is a puppeteer, and if so, are you sometimes nostalgic for those theatrical days?
Yes, I think it’s fair to say that the two roles have switched. A lot of that had to do with the move to Chicago, because it takes time to reestablish oneself in a new theater scene. With the writing career taking off, I haven’t had the time to do that. I miss it. A lot. At the moment I’m working on plans for a puppet web series, which I hope will allow me to balance fiction and puppetry.
LS: In 2008, you said of your writing process, “I rough in the story in general phrases like, ‘Ninjas appear. Something bad happens. She solves it! Happily ever after’ (Okay, not quite that vague but you get the idea.) Then once I’ve got that, I start filling in the details.” Is that still your process, or has it changed with your novels?
It’s still pretty much my process. In fact, in Glamour in Glass, I had a chapter that said “Sailing!” and that was all I knew about it when I wrote the outline. I’m liable to be more detailed these days because it allows me to have a conversation with my editor before I get too far down the path in a story, but otherwise, it’s pretty much a thumbnail sketch first, then a rough outline, then drafting.
LS: For the past two years you have hosted the Month of Letters Challenge, where participants endeavor to write (preferably longhand) and mail a letter, card or other correspondence every “postable” day in the month of February. First of all, kudos! With a dynamic website, active profiles for participants, achievements granted for milestones, and constant interaction and support for those involved, it can’t have been an easy task, but you seem to revel in it. What was the impetus behind the Challenge, and what have you been able to take away from it?
It’s been a lot of fun. It started as a break from the internet. In 2010, I was exhausted so took a month off and unplugged. I invited people to write letters to me, and discovered that I really loved it. Email feels like work these days, and there’s a pressure to respond immediately. Paper mail, on the other hand, is tangible and allows me to slow down. I like that change of pace and the idea of writing for one. In 2011, I posted the Challenge informally on my website and it went viral. I threw together a site the first year and was astonished by how many people wanted to participate. This year, I planned ahead and added the game elements. The idea is to help people find another way to engage with each other. I love the internet, so the Challenge isn’t about getting offline so much as it is about remembering what letters can do. There’s something magic about the tangibility of exchanging something through the mail.
LS: You maintain an active journal on your website and you do professional voice work, including readings of works by John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow. You attend conventions and teach classes, and admittedly have to travel a lot more than you used to. You were vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), you’re one of the hosts of the podcast Writing Excuses, you spearhead projects such as the Month of Letters Challenge, you personally reply (in longhand) to those who have sent you snail mail letters. You sew your own period dresses. You were Art Director for Shimmer magazine. You grant numerous interviews, you pose for satirical (and hilarious) book covers with colleagues, and you still do puppetry and have your own production company (Other Hand Productions). When the heck do you have time to write?
The nice thing about a long career freelancing in theater is that all of these things are just other freelance gigs to me. I juggle my schedule using structured procrastination. So whatever is due next is the thing I’m working on. All the other things are getting attention from the hind part of my brain so usually, when I sit down to tackle them, I’ve already done the headwork and know what I’m going to do. Not always, and I sometimes drop balls, but it usually works. I’ve also learned that I can’t wait for the Muse to show up and I can’t have the luxury of a perfect writing environment. I write on the train, or bus, or waiting for someone at a restaurant. I’m fortunate that my early training was that if I started working, the inspiration would follow.
LS: Any tattoos? If not, ever thought about getting one? If it became mandatory that everyone have at least one tattoo of their choosing, (beyond the consternation if that actually happened), what would your choice be?
No tattoos. Occasionally I think about it, because I’ve seen some lovely ink, but I’ve never had anything that I wanted permanently on me. If it were mandatory… I would probably have some additional freckles added to my back in order to comply with the law.
I will wear a ballgown to the Nebula awards in San Jose in May. In theory, I might even make it.
Be sure to check out Mary’s website for more on this dynamic writer.