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Interview with Mary Robinette Kowal

Our special guest today is Mary Robinette Kowal

My first introduction to Mary Robinette Kowal was through the podcast Writing Excuses. Her writing advice was so spot on, I knew I had to check out her books. And I fell in love. In her novels and plethora of short stories, Mary Robinette covers a wide range of the science fiction and fantasy spectrum. Her first novel was a Jane Austenera historical fantasy, and her most recent series is alternate history sci-fi that follows women of diverse backgrounds as they fight for their right to be part of the space race.

Mary Robinette is also one of the most reader-friendly authors I know of. She invites her fans to join her in almost every aspect of the writing journey. I’ve been lucky enough to serve as a beta reader on a few of her books—an invitation she sends out through her newsletter. She even has a whole page on her website dedicated to the lessons she learned as a debut author. If you want an insider’s look at how the traditional publishing world works, I highly recommend you follow Mary Robinette Kowal and join her newsletter.

Her newest book, The Relentless Moon, launches today. She kindly took time out of her busy launch-day schedule to answer these questions for us. Check out her answers, and check out the book!

- Bonnie McKnight, NCW Membership Director

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Yes, simultaneously. It depends, honestly. It’s like anything. There are days when you are excited and you know exactly what you are doing and you feel a sense of accomplishment from doing that and that’s energizing. Then there are other days when you’re like oh, this is a slog because it is right at the edge of my skill set or it’s emotional draining and those are harder days. Those are exhausting days. 

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

I think the biggest one is trying to please other people and forgetting that you are a reader who has honed your taste over your entire life and that your taste is valid so that what you like is actually a useful metric.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

I actually think it helps. But you can have a big ego and still recognize that you are not the center of the universe and still be a kind person. Those are different things. So, being confident in your work, that’s useful. Being arrogant is not useful. Because arrogance is a refusal to admit mistakes or to learn and I think that people who are confident and have strong egos are people who recognize that mistakes are gifts because those are places that you can…especially the ones that you can’t spot on your own that someone points out to you because that is an area that you can improve that you didn’t realize that you could improve. That’s an opportunity. 

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Depends on how far back we go. Probably what I would tell my earliest writing self which was high school, junior high, would be finish things. Finish. Things. Stop just rewriting things over and over again. FINISH THINGS. Lots of all caps. 

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

I had been writing completely for pleasure so what I had planned, because I had watched other friends do this, was that I would write a bunch of stand-alones that had series potential. The moment I sold my first book I had to switch from writing stand-alones to writing series. And that meant that all of my plans for sequels and series, I suddenly had to execute those plans which requires a different kind of thought and planning. 

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Oh, that’s actually super easy. It’s my assistant. Because I’m able to offload all the things that I don’t want to do that are not writing to someone else, which frees up more writing time. I started with a single task and the assistant and I had the conversation of the potential for scope creep and building that into our agreement so that if I had another task I wanted to hand her I could ask if she wanted to take this one on as well, and then slowly expanded to be a much more robust part of my daily life than I thought that I needed. 

What does literary success look like to you?

So, the word literary is often a loaded term, especially for someone coming out of science fiction and fantasy, because it is its own genre, literary fiction. But at the same time, the question is what does success as a storyteller mean versus what does career success mean. And they are sometimes interrelated and sometimes not. For me, the success comes from knowing that I have touched a reader in a specific way. That is the thing I’m looking for. I come out of theater and I’m interested in audience and the relationship. So when a reader writes to me and says that my book touched them in a specific way—that for me is success. On a career point, and what I think a lot of people think about when they think about success as a writer, I have trophies. Those are very nice, I’m not going to pretend that those are not nice. But that is external measures of success and that is not my own internal measure of success. 

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

I mean, yes…all the time. One of the things was actually a book that I read pretty early, its a book I keep coming back to which The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars by Steven Brust. It’s not an unflawed book but it’s first person and the thing that it made me understand is that when you write first person one of the opportunities that you have in that form that you don’t have in any other form is for the narrator to be changed by the act of telling the story. And that was a very exciting revelation for me that I play with now. That is a specific moment of going “ohhh, here’s a tool” and that’s exciting. 

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Making decisions. The decision to sit down in the chair. The decision about which project I want to start on. I have a giant list of novels I want to write. I have a giant list of short stories I want to write. Deciding which one I’m going to prioritize is the hardest part of the process. 

What is your most unusual writing quirk?

I like having people read along with me. I know a lot of writers who, when I describe my writing process, back away in fear. There are a lot of people who have a reader they hand things the moment they finish. I hand it to a group of people. And random people that I don’t…they’re not trusted close confidantes. I go to my Patreon supporters, my newsletters readers, “I’m doing a beta read.” So I’ll have 60 people reading along with me. And the reason I do that is because again, coming out of live theater, I need to know if a scene is playing and the only way I know that is if there’s an audience is there. 

For me, one of the things that was pretty formative was that I did puppet theater and we had a pre-recorded show so the dialogue was on tape which meant that the timing was exactly the same every night. The lines, everything was. The only thing I had control over was body language. And the only other thing that affected the show was the audience. And the audience had such a huge impact. So, what it has made me realize as a writer is that the book exists in the space between me and the audience and that each audience member brings something unique to that book. So the only way I know whether or not the thing I’m doing is working if I get a bunch reading it and I can see how it’s hitting for a bunch of different people.

How do you think being a writer has helped you as a person?

I have used writing as therapy but I don’t think that is actually the thing that is most helpful. I think that it is recognizing that when I have put in things that feel strange about myself or uncomfortable about myself like when I gave my mental health journey to my protagonist with The Calculating Stars—mine is depression, Ellen’s in social anxiety—but the process of coming to understand that it was okay to have this. Realizing how many other people were on the same journey has made me feel more part of a community and less ashamed of the parts of myself that had felt broken. So that has probably been the thing that writing has done for me most, that connection with people who are like me. 

Give a shout-out to a fellow author.

All of them? Yeah, let me give a shout out to Diana Rowland. I love her books. She writes police procedurals that are also urban fantasy that are also romance. She was a cop. She’s so smart. Her books are so compelling. And she’s also a generous person with her time. 

If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?

Oh, wow, that’s easy. I’d be a professional puppeteer! 

About Mary Robinette

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series, Ghost Talkers, and the Lady Astronaut series. She’s the President of SFWA, part of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo awards, the Nebula and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Uncanny, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary Robinette, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. 


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