Interview: Elizabeth Moon

Elizabeth Moon is a science fiction and fantasy writer. Her most well known works includeThe Deed of Paksenarrion the Vatta’s War series and the novels set in the Familias Regnant universe. Her solo science fiction novels include Remnant Population which was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1997 and for The Speed of Dark which won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2003–it was also an Arthur C. Clarke finalist.

More information about Moon’s works can be found on her author website here.

How did you get started writing?

I grew up around storytellers, both men and women–television didn’t penetrate our corner of Texas until I was in about third grade and we didn’t have a set for another several years. People still sat around talking to each other, passing stories around like the pitcher of iced tea. I’m sure that had an effect…I was the kid who came up with the stories we acted out (sometimes ones I’d read, like Robin Hood.) As a very early reader, I naturally became a very early writer, and tried to write a book when I was six (and it was BAAAAAD.)

What do you like to read (either genre or non-fiction)?

A very wide range: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, old stuff, new stuff. Much of my reading now is nonfiction (of necessity), and within that I like solid, informative, well-written books. John McPhee is one of my favorites; also Oliver Sacks and Lewis Thomas. In fiction, I read both light (current mysteries, thrillers, etc) and older works (back to Homer, and including Victorian novels, a guilty pleasure.) I don’t read as much SF and fantasy as I used to (re-reading a lot, though) to avoid picking up what I shouldn’t…I feel a need to read things very different from what I’m writing, by better writers. (Currently this includes Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds.)

Who would you say influenced your writing, in either a positive or negative way?

Everything I read influenced my writing–and I did a lot of reading very early, much of it well over my head (didn’t matter–if it had words on it, I read it.) Magazine fiction (Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Lady’s Home Journal), lots of Readers Digest Condensed Books (a good length for a kid, and introduced me to a wide range of writers, including Nevil Shute, still a favorite. Every horse and dog book in the local library, writers like Marguerite Henry, Dorothy Lyons, Terhune, Colonel S.P. Meek, Eric Knight, Alfred Ollivant, Rudyard Kipling. From the start I was a sucker for stories with action plus interesting characters: Robin Hood, Treasure Island, the more exciting bits of mythology. In summer vacations, I gorged on books, grabbing anything in the library that looked remotely interesting–fiction, nonfiction, poetry. So I don’t know which of them had the most influence–for one thing, I was hardly conscious of the writers, in that first rush of enthusiasm for anything book-like.

How would you describe your writing style?

Better than it was at age twelve. (I’ve recently found, and read, letters I’d written home from camp…the high-drama description of a thunderstorm would have done justice to a hurricane mixed with an earthquake.) I can tell that my writing now is a lot better than that. But what it is, in terms of a lit class…I have no idea. I try to write as each story (and each character and incident in each story) needs to be written. From the inside, it feels like the demands on technique vary from one story (and POV character to another…so I’m not sure I even have “a” writing style.

The first science fiction novel by you that I read was your collaboration with Anne McCaffrey, Planet Pirates. What was it like working with Anne McCaffrey?

Wonderful. No novice could ask for a more generous senior writer collaborator than Anne McCaffrey. I learned so much…it was amazing and joyful.

Would you ever consider doing another collaboration (with a different author) again?

Probably not (never say ‘never’) because I know I could not be as good a senior collaborator as Anne was for me…and because I so enjoy playing in my own sandbox.

What were some of the major influences of The Deed of Paksenarrion?

My history degree–mostly ancient and medieval–and the cultural anthropology courses I took at the same time. Floyd Seward Lear’s Treason in Roman and Germanic Law, Katherine Fischer Drew’s Lombard Laws and The Burgundian Code, were essential deep background for both the Deed and the Legacy of Gird. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror was another influence Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company, a number of books on military history, and of course my time in the Marine Corps.

What would you say are recurring themes in your writing?

You know, “themes” scares me. In school, finding the theme meant finding a lesson; it was a didactic attitude, a purpose in the story other than telling the story…and that’s not how I write. I can see some common elements, but I don’t know if they qualify as “themes”. The common elements are just that: common to the stories I like to read, as well as the ones I write. I like complex characters with a sense of purpose, having to develop new skills to cope with the difficulties they encounter. Characters who fail and recover from failure. Choices with consequences. I see ethical values as motivators along with physical/familial/financial/social/political forces. I see all ages as having potential for more growth (hence some young protagonists and some old ones) but different skillsets…part of the fun of the Serrano/Suiza books was showing the contrasting generational coping styles.

What kind of research do you do when creating a world or a culture?

Curiosity has been a driving force in my life, so research is recreation. In one sense research is ongoing all the time, not even project-specific: we subscribe to both science and medical journals. Decades ago I read them through every week; now I don’t have time, but I try to read at least two articles in each issue. My nonwriting interests (biology, wildlife management, restoration biology, autism and disability issues, photography, music, and more) ensure that I’m constantly picking up new facts and ideas.

Project-specific: “Do it, interview someone who’s done it, read a first hand account of doing it, read scholarly work about it.” For example, for Surrender None I learned to scythe. For the Speed of Dark, I subscribed to a top-level journal for two years (Nature Neuroscience) to understand where current research was so I could (maybe) stay ahead of it for that near-future book, and that was only a small part of the research. For “Tradition,” an alternate history novella set in the first days of WWI) I used books (including one written by my “alternate admiral,” photographs, and an appeal on a WWI listserv for a detail that I could not find here (someone in England kindly dug into Royal Navy archives for me.) The Paks-world books I’m working on now took me back through the sources I used for the Deed, plus more economic and technological history of the relevant period. Although I live a long way from a real research library (the one thing I regret about leaving the big university environment) Interlibrary Loan and the internet have made fairly good research possible.

Which of the books you’ve written are your favorites? Which are your least favorite?

The Deed of Paksenarrion, my firstborn book–because it was the first, and because I’ve never had another character as much fun to write as Paks. (Although I’m now having great fun in the same setting with other characters–that setting seems to generate plot and character.) The Speed of Dark, because I feel I achieved what I set out to do, show an autist from the inside. Remnant Population even though I wasn’t completely satisfied. I like long stretches of both the SF monsters (the Serrano/Suiza books and Vatta’s War; in Vatta’s War, especially, I feel like these were what I wanted them to be.) If I have to pick a “Not quite so…” book it would have to be Liar’s Oath. Some stretches of it read the way I wanted them to and some don’t. I wrote it too soon after my mother died, and grief affects both creativity and the judgment needed to edit and polish creativity.

What projects are you currently working on?

Currently–back in Paksenarrion’s universe with the first book out (the one you reviewed, Oath of Fealty) and the next due out next March, Kings of the North (which someone told me today is just now available on Amazon for pre-order, whoopee!) If people want more info about that project, the Paksworld blog is a good place to go.

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