God’s War has been out for a week now. We reviewed it and loved it, and the natural next step was an interview with the author, Kameron Hurley! Luckily for us, she consented, and it was a joy to interview her.
We discussed a variety of topics from her feelings on having her book just released, where she says that she “just [can’t get her] head around the fact that it’s actually happened, despite photographic evidence that it’s on bookstore shelves” to her near-death experience, where she says she went into a coma after a year of bad health. Finally, she talks about her plans after the God’s War trilogy, and her idea for a “Bloodtide in space” book.
Before we start the interview, I’d like to say a bit about about Kameron Hurley and her book, God’s War. It truly is one of the most original and gripping novels I’ve read in recent years, and I’m proud to say that it was the first five-star review that I’ve given a book since I began reviewing for The Ranting Dragon. Being able to interview Kameron has been a great privilege, and I wish her all the luck and success in the world. If you haven’t read God’s War, go buy it or get it from your local library. It’s a fantastic novel and it’s most definitely one of the best books of 2011 (yes, even in January I feel confident saying that it’ll end up on our ‘Best of 2011’ list).
More information on God’s War can be found in both our review, previously linked, and on the God’s War homepage (which is pretty fantastic!).
[Ranting Dragon] First off, we hope that our review did your book justice! We certainly loved it, and we’re glad that we’re getting the opportunity to interview you, so thank you very much for that!
[Kameron Hurley] Always a delight to hear folks enjoyed something that was wickedly fun for me to write. Win-win! Thanks for the invite.
So, your book was just released – how do you feel?
God’s War had a long, long road to publication. I think at some point it was supposed to come out in spring of 2009, so I’m still just getting my head around the fact that it’s actually happened, despite photographic evidence that it’s on bookstore shelves. I’ve also been in full-on book marketing mode for six weeks or so, which means I have some blinders on. When you’re going down the rabbit hole, it’s all go! go! go! with no time to digest how you actually feel about the ride.
When did you start writing? What was the first thing you wrote about?
I wrote my first novel when I was 12. It had a lot of classic fantasy tropes in it. Green eyed queens. Scullery maids who became princesses. Stable boys who were really princes. Faux medieval sensibilities. Heads getting chopped off. That sort of thing. Except for the heads getting chopped off, my writing tastes have changed a lot in the ensuing 19 years, as you might expect.
Who was the very first character you created? How do you feel about him/her looking back now?
Should I count that story about the unicorns and Martians I wrote in 4th grade? I guess things really took off when I started writing about a scullery-maid-who-was-really-a-princess named Yolanda and the stable boy she ran off with on quests for trolls’ blood and dragons’ gold.
Yolanda was a waifish, dainty, blond and blue eyed Mary Sue. Even at 12, it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to grow up to look like a perfect picture of acceptable femininity, and I worked hard to fashion a character that could actually get the guy in the one way I could figure that girls got guys. In this case, the stable boy was a fictionalized version of a guy I had a crush on at the time. I think I eventually killed him. In the book, at least.
My heroines have taken the same sort of journey I did over the years. At some point you wake up from the Disney princess dream and realize that true heroines are the ones with the power to save themselves, not the ones that followed the rules. Instead, they create their own lives and live by their own rules. And they don’t even have to be secret princesses in order to kick some serious ass.
We better get on to God’s War soon, though, or I think readers are going to tune out. “What the hell? She writes about scullery maids and trolls?”
So for those unfamiliar with the novel, what is God’s War about?
God’s War is a screaming, bloody adventure story set on a ravaged, contaminated world where a centuries-old holy war rages. It follows an inglorious former government assassin named Nyx and her ragtag band of felons, mercenaries, and magicians in their hunt to take down an alien gene pirate who may hold the key to ending the war.
How did the idea of Nyx come up for you? Did anyone inspire you for that character?
Nyx is a natural evolution of some complex bloody heroines I developed in early short stories. They were from post-apocalyptic/desert/resource-poor worlds, and I knew that I wanted to have the same kind of hard-bitten, experienced, take-no-prisoners personality type for Nyx.
When I started patching together what I thought was going to be my “bounty hunter novel” those characters were certainly at the top of my mind. Thing is, the more depth you give your world, the more unique the character becomes to that world. I don’t know that Nyx could exist without Umayma. That’s something I think is key to building memorable characters. They have to be people who simply couldn’t exist if you picked them up and put them somewhere else.
Was there a character that you related to more than any others? Was there a story that you enjoyed telling more than any other?
Nyx is by far easiest to write, so she was never the challenge. Rhys is the one who’s going to take the longest, hardest journey. He loses the most in these books, and he’s heartbreaking to write. The thing with Nyx is that she tries very hard not to feel anything, so writing her can get pretty brutal and numbing after awhile. Rhys is certainly the heart of the story. He has to feel everything for the both of them. And that’s tough.
The world of Umayma is beautifully crafted. The details and insight that you have are fantastic when you talk about the world. Every single thought is written down in an amazing way and it feels like a place where you could actually live (I’m not saying it would be a happy life, but I’m saying I could see myself there). Was worldbuilding something as vast as the world of Umayma difficult for you? What was the process like?
There’s a saying that “The past is another country.” My academic background is in history, so I’ve spent a lot of time in dusty archives and stuck between the pages of massive books and journals. I love the past because it has some of the best stories. If you’re looking for ways to build whole new worlds, you could do a lot worse than digging into the way people viewed the world at different times, in different places. It really is like visiting an entirely new world.
Once upon a time, I was really diligent about my worldbuilding. I painstakingly wrote everything out. I catalogued every character’s height, weight, age, looks, religion, interest, blah, blah, blah. I had whole file folders full of crap. But all that happened was that instead of writing, I’d spend years creating character cards and fake botany notebooks. I suppose that was great for Tolkien, but I’ve always wanted to write more than a couple books, and create more than one world.
So, with God’s War and the sequels, I have a really terrible worldbuilding secret, and it goes something like this: my first draft of God’s War was mostly dialogue and fight scenes (in part because I was dying at the time, but that’s a whole other story). The entire revision process, which took about four times longer than writing the book, consisted of going back in and re-thinking all the lazy stuff. What did their kitchens really look like? Did they even have a kitchen? What do house spiders do? Is there an ablation bowl by the door? Who uses it? How do they feel when they use it? How does a com console really work? Why does Rhys’s uncle have track marks on his arms? Do I need to put some Tirhani pilgrims in this scene? Oh crap, what do the Tirhanis believe?
Over the years, my process has become much more organic than it was in the past. In part because if I painstakingly went through every scene and layered the worldbuilding throughout instead of figuring out the plot first and then fleshing out the world around it, I’d never have a finished draft.
A good example of how to steal things from real life is this little descriptive bit about Nyx going into a train station:
“Nyx elbowed her way into the swarm and looked back once to make sure Rhys was following unmolested. The arches leading into the station were plastered with martyr’s letters from women who’d volunteered at the front. A couple of pushy women dressed in the prophet’s green were handing out copies of the latest propaganda sheets and shiny carcasses of pretty holiday beetles, insects known for their cowardly aversion to loud noises.”
If you unpack that, it goes like this: The model for the train station is some old Iranian architecture I pulled from an online slide show. Martyr letters comes from some interviews with Afghan women, who lovingly celebrated the martyrdom of their husbands and whose stories were used in propaganda items. The “prophet’s green” comes from the idea that the prophet Muhammad’s favorite color was green. Women handing out the beetles is an adaptation of what some groups of women would do during World War I when they saw men on the street who weren’t wearing uniforms. White feathers are traditional symbols of cowardice, and they would pass out those feathers to men in an attempt to shame them into going to front.
There aren’t a lot of original ideas there. It’s simply existing stories and textures put together in new and interesting ways.
You mentioned a near-death experience – how did that affect the way that you write? Do you feel that without having that experience you wouldn’t have been as brave as you are now with the content of your books? Did the experience give you more drive to write?
During the year I was writing the first draft of God’s War, I was losing a lot of weight, sleeping all the time, and constantly ravenously hungry and thirsty. I was starting to get strange, recurring infections (like, pus-filled boils and chronic sinus infections). I was also suffering from wacky mood swings and intense claustrophobia. All that together there sounds suspicious, right? But when you’re a little crazy and it’s all happening very slowly over a long period of time, you’re just happy you’re losing weight and you figure the mood swings are just because you spend too much time with crazy people… not because you’re the one who’s crazy. People kept telling me how healthy I must be because I was losing all this weight. In the meantime, it was getting harder and harder to lift weights. Every time I went to the doctor, they just said I was stressed out and charged me $75. So I eventually just stopped going.
I felt a little drunk much of the time, and connected things in weird ways. I was certainly a lot less inhibited, I think, when it came to writing God’s War during that time. There were a lot of whiskey and writing nights. I toss around whiskey in that book the same way most writers toss around coffee. I made a lot of odd connections, and the plot was far more disjointed than it had any right to be. But there were cool, visceral fight scenes, and lots of icky ways people were dealing with organs and contagion, because a drunken crazy brain makes drunken crazy connections. Did some of that have to do with dying? Sure.
I went into a coma after about a year of slow degeneration. Even though I was losing a lot of weight, I was weaker than I’d ever been. It’s when I stopped going to boxing classes, because I was just too exhausted to function. I could barely get up the stairs to my apartment.
When I woke up, I was in the ICU at the local hospital. My roommate had called 911 when I collapsed outside the bathroom and started going into convulsions. If I hadn’t had a roommate, or if she’d gone to bed that night instead of worrying over me, I simply wouldn’t have woken up the next morning.
When they told me I had type 1 diabetes, it absolutely baffled my gauzy, crazy brain. “But I eat right and exercise,” I told them.
And they said, “No, no, you don’t have that kind. You have the kind that kids get. Type 1 diabetes. It’s an immune disorder, and no one knows what triggers it. You’ll need to take shots for the rest of your life or you’ll die. You can’t control this with diet and exercise. Your body has attacked and killed all the cells in your body that make insulin. If you’d been born even 20 years ago, you’d be dead right now. You were so far gone we weren’t sure we could bring you back.”
Most people have a blood sugar number about 80. Mine was 820. I learned later that Anne Rice went through the same kind of thing (she apparently ran around her house tearing her clothes off right before her coma, gabbling crazily. Her blood sugar was up over 1000 when they brought her in).
That happened when I was 26. Before that, I’d always considered myself reasonably robust, even healthy when I was living in Alaska. Getting hit over the head with a chronic illness was certainly a motivator. I think I attacked the revisions of God’s War with a new kind of angry vigor after that that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Did it make me braver? Sure. When you’re dying just a little bit faster than everyone else, it puts things in perspective. You type a little bit faster, and don’t give a shit about what people think anymore.
There are a lot of cultural parallels in God’s War, which I found fantastic and amazing. Was it challenging for you to create those without turning this into a political novel?
Science fiction and fantasy have always been the places where you get to say things without really saying them. Both genres, but science fiction in particular, have always been highly political. Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Was, and, OK, pretty much every good SF novel out there is a warning of what Could Be. On the fantasy side, China Mieville’s politics bleed all over his books. It’s part of what makes them so interesting.
One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and vice versa. That said, there’s a fine line between your politics informing your fiction and using fiction to inform people of your politics. I settle for writing about things that I find interesting. That usually involves violence and wacky gender roles. If I can do that and tell a great story too, more’s the merrier.
As a follow up – a lot of the issues addressed in the novel (homosexuality, war, equality…) were things that definitely hit close to home for me – did you feel that a story addressing these issues needed to be told today?
They are the same old stories, just told differently. I remember that when I read the first three Dragonlance novels, I thought they were the most amazing books ever written. Then I found out there were at least several dozen more just like them, and a bazillion knockoffs, and I got bored. I was 14 at the time, and still had a limited reading life, especially when it came to genre fiction. As life changed, I started connecting with different sorts of stories. When I found Joanna Russ’s work, the whole world just sort of cracked apart and opened up. That’s happened over and over again as I discover new (to me) writers and their books.
I know that God’s War will be a gateway book for a lot of people. Maybe you read it for the adventure and then sit around afterward contemplating the way the folks have put together their social systems, and wonder why it is things are the way they are, and whether or not they need to be that way. Books that make me look at the world differently are always more fun that books that just tell me stuff I already think I know. So those end up being the sorts of books I write. Writing God’s War challenged a lot of things I thought I knew.
God’s War is a cross-genre novel, including elements of both fantasy and sci-fi. Which of those genres do you relate to most?
Fantasy, certainly. Writing “hard” science fiction feels too much like writing a sermon. If things are “just so” all the scholars (scientists) get pissed off. For good reason, and all. It’s like writing a novel about World War II and saying it’s all true, then randomly deciding that England got nuked in 1940 and the holocaust never happened. But it’s less fun when you have to stick to only what we know and only what’s been written down as truth. As an armchair historian, I know the victors write the history, and the victors create the science experiments. It’s one thing to say there’s gravity right now here on earth that abides by certain laws. It’s another to say it works just like that everywhere else in the vast universe. Observation bias is as sticky in science as it is in history. We don’t know what we don’t know.
With fantasy, I get to just shamelessly make shit up. Sure, my worlds all follow rules, but they follow their own rules. Not ours.
Bugpunk isn’t a genre that I’ve heard of before. In fact, if I’ve read your blog correctly, it’s a genre you invented. What makes bugpunk so different that it demanded a new subgenre? What’s it all about?
“Invented” is a strong word. Somebody asked me to describe my book a few years ago, and I thought, well, it’s not New Weird and it’s not Steampunk and it’s not really Military Science Fiction and it’s not Epic Fantasy or Cyberpunk or Urban Fantasy. It’s… I don’t know. It has bugs. And everybody says “punk” when they mean tech, really, so I guess it’s… bugpunk? With brutal women? Let’s go with that.
My web designer and I slapped it up on my website because it sounded cool, and my publisher saw it when he visited my site and totally rolled with it (because that’s just what Jeremy Lassen does!). All the sudden it was showing up on press releases and book blurbs, and interviewers started asking about it… and, so, bugpunk.
Before finding home at Night Shade Books, you faced some rejection… a certain publishing house felt there weren’t enough parallels to the real world. We see a lot of parallels. How did rejections influence the content of the book and your style of writing?
Most of the rewriting I ended up doing was explaining things. I hate info dumps. There’s nothing worse than stopping in the middle of exploring a new world to have one character turn to another and say something lame like, “As you know, Bob, thirty years ago during the first Scarpasian war, my father died and left me with many riches.” I throw people into books the same way I like to get thrown into books – head first.
But most folks don’t like to read books that way. They feel a little lost (I sympathized a bit more after I read The Windup Girl. I flailed about with that one for about 20 pages before things started making sense. Serves me right, I suppose!).
So I did end up adding some more exposition in the early chapters, and clarifying some terms. One of the more interesting suggestions my first editor gave me was to make Rhys even less effective as a magician than I’d originally written him. It was an interesting choice, and when I started going back and rewriting it that way, it did something pretty intense to Nyx and Rhys’s relationship. Her motives for keeping him on the team were even more questionable, and their power dynamic was even more awkward.. The way they treat each other in the final version is far more painful than it was in the first go-round. And, you know, I like a little emotional pain in my fiction. It makes for more interesting people.
As far as long-term changes made in the editing process that will affect other books, that was probably the biggest one. The rest was just cutting and clarifying.
Being published isn’t always a matter of editing. Once you reach a certain level, it’s often simply a matter of luck and personal taste.
You wrote a guest blog about your first book deal being canceled, and that blog got you another deal. How did that go, and how did it feel?
As a general rule, it’s bad form to talk publicly about failed book contracts/book rejections in the biz, at least not until you’ve sold it again. Then it’s all puppy dogs and rainbows and makes for a good interview(!).
But it was getting to be about the time the book was supposed to have been published initially, and people were asking about it. The proper thing I should have done was say, “The book is currently in transition.”
Trouble was, I’ve gotten used to talking about big, important life things on my blog. I have a passionate desire to tell people the truth about my experience with things, because I think it gives us better expectations about what the writing life (or just life in general) is really all about. That goes for all sorts of personal experiences we don’t talk about: sex, abortion, contraception, racism, health fiascos, power negotiations, violence against men and women, homophobia, sexuality, etc. etc. These are easy things to politicize because it’s always “those other people” and never “me” or “us,” because when you’re being a bigot and saying gay people shouldn’t get married, your friend doesn’t turn to you and say, “Hey, I’m gay, and when you say stuff like that that implies that gay people aren’t real people, you’re talking about me.” And when you say that every woman who gets an abortion should get the death penalty, your mom doesn’t turn to you and say “Hey, you know, I’m one of the 33% of women who’s had an abortion. You know you’re talking about me, right?” We’re socialized not to make the political personal, when in fact, politicians are explicitly and individually targeting us and the ones we love. There is nothing more intensely personal than someone explicitly trying to restrict my individual freedoms based on my sex, race, sexuality, or beliefs. Divide and conquer only works if you shut your mouth and let it tear you apart.
With those sorts of big things on my mind, I guess I didn’t see posting about a canceled publishing contract as such a big deal, but it was still a story I thought was worth sharing in the off chance that it helped reassure other writers. One of those, “Hey, shit happens. You just get back up again and carry on” things.
You say it’s bad form, yet, it did land you a new publishing deal. How did things pick up after you wrote the blog? What happened next?
My agent already had the book out on submission, but after the guest post hit, we had two publishers query her directly for it. One of those was Night Shade books, who made an offer on God’s War and the sequel a few months later.
The sequel to God’s War, Infidel, comes out in December. Can you give us any insights into what it’s about? Does the sequel follow Nyx and/or Rhys?
The story arch throughout remains primarily Nyx and Rhys’s, but Infidel will bring in a bunch of new characters as well as some old enemies. There are big adventures in Tirhan and parts of Ras Tieg, too, countries which got only passing mention in God’s War. Writing about Nyx trying to negotiate a peaceful country was pretty fun, though wherever Nyx goes, violence isn’t far behind. Tirhan gets a taste of that.
Do you plan on writing in this world in the future after this series is finished?
If people want more books set in Umayma, I’d be happy to write them. I’ve worked hard to make it a complex and evolving world – the tech and social landscape changes from book to book accordingly (or, in the case of book three, massively) – so it’s always going to be fun and challenging for me as a writer. But series books are absolutely dictated by reader demand. Book three, Babylon, only sees the light of day if folks snap up a ton of copies of God’s War and Infidel. That’s just how the biz works.
What are your plans after finishing the God’s War trilogy?
I’ll be writing a wholly original YA novel about a wisecracking, demon-killing cheerleader with psychic powers who falls in love with a demon. It does this incredibly edgy thing where it uses fighting demons as a metaphor for… Oh, sorry…. Nevermind.
I’m working on an SF adventure novel that I affectionately refer to as my “Bloodtide in space” book. It’s about two warring matriarchal families battling for control of the outer rim of a legion of wandering worlds cast adrift in deep space. Tentative title is “Iron Lady” because “Iron Maiden” makes way too many people break out into giggles at conventions.
Do you have any advice for future writers with alternative looks on the mainstream genres?
Be a good writer. Be a great writer. Be a great writer who is persistent, and don’t be afraid to scare the shit out of yourself with some of the stuff you write. Chances are, it will scare the shit out of other people too.
After that, getting published is just dumb luck. It helps to have a great agent and a great editor and a great publisher in your court, but all that comes after the great writing and dogged persistence. Alternatively, become a reality star first, then you can get somebody to publish whatever the hell you want.
Well, thank you for taking the time to answer all of our questions! Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about before we finish?
Thanks for the invite. Was good times!