Anne Harris is an award-winning science fiction novelist as well as a talented short-story author; her short story, Still Life with Boobs, was even a 2005 Nebula finalist. (Note: you can read this fabulous unboxed work through Anne’s Live Journal site by clicking here.) Therese and Kathleen recently chatted with Anne about her writing, what it’s like to excel in different mediums and what you might learn about one from experimenting in the other. Enjoy!
Interview with Anne Harris
Q: Which came first for you: the short story or the novel?
AH: I started writing short stories first.
Q: When did you realize you loved writing? When did you take the drive seriously enough to consider this a career option?
AH: In college. I was studying for a degree in computer science and I didn’t really like it. My boyfriend at the time, Michael, had written a story and sent it to Dragon Magazine, who rejected it, and I was always encouraging him to write more. Kurt Vonnegut came to my college and gave a talk and I took Michael to hear him. All the time that Mr. Vonnegut was speaking, I kept thinking to myself, oh, this is wonderful for Micheael to hear. By the end of the talk, I had a niggling suspicion that maybe I was the one who needed to hear these things. Then a few months later, Michael said to me, “You should write.” From then on, there was no turning back.
Q: What do you see as the common creative and architectural threads for these mediums?
AH: You’re telling a story, so you’re working with the same elements in both cases: character and conflict. And in both cases you’re building toward a climax, followed by a resolution. But of course in a short story, you’ll start much closer to the climax, and your pacing will be much faster.
A good example is a short story I recently wrote which was an excerpt from a novel-in-progress. It was a section that had its own little story arc, that of the two main characters becoming friends, so it was fairly easy to pop out and shape into a self-contained story.
What was interesting about the process was what you do differently in a short story and in a novel. In the novel, for instance, the first time we are introduced to the villian, he’s very low key, and the second time we see him, an oil platform is exploding behind him. In a novel, you want to build things — like the idea that this guy is bad news — in stages. But in the short story, I needed it to be known right off the bat that he’s dangerous, so I went with the exploding oil platform in his one and only appearance.
Q: So short stories really focus in on crucial turning points and such and leave out those shades-of-grey moments that usually fill in between those crucial points?
AH: Yeah, that sounds about right.
Q: What lessons might a novelist gain by crafting a short story?
AH: The accepted wisdom used to be that you learn your craft by writing short stories. That’s how I came up, and I think there’s something to be said for it. Short stories are a lot harder to pull off than novels. You have to have everything working just right. It’s kind of like learning to cook by starting with souffles. Rigorous, but effective.
As for specific lessons? Economy. Clarity. Precision.
Q: Have you written poetry as well?
AH: Not that I’ll admit publicly. ;)
Q: What’s your process, and how much time do you devote to each type of writing?
AH: It always starts with something I can’t get out of my head. That’s the kernel. Sometimes it’s a line of dialogue and from that grows the character who is delivering it and the situation they are in. Sometimes it’s an image, and then I have to go searching for the character and situation that go with the image. It’s a process of accretion.
At some point, after I have a basic idea fleshed out, I ask myself if it’s a novel idea or a short story idea. These days, I’m about 85 percent novelist, 15 percent short story writer.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your process for deciding whether it’s short story or novel? What are some of the key questions you’ll ask yourself to figure it out? Have you ever had “false starts,” believing a kernel is going to become A but it becomes B?
AH: Well, it depends on if it’s something that I can get to gel in under 10,000 words, and again, that’s a process of getting in there, writing some scenes and seeing where they go. The questions are the same for a novel and for a short story. What does the character want? What do they think they want and what do they really need, and how can they get it? It’s all a matter of whether or not those questions can be answered meaningfully in a short form, or if the story needs the slow development of a novel.
Sure, I’ve started out on something that I thought would be a short story and turned into a novel. There’s an example of that in an answer to a question below. I don’t think I’ve ever started a novel and had it turn into a short story, though.
Q: Your short story Still Life with Boobs was a Nebula finalist for 2005 and is a great example of unboxed craft work. How did the idea for this piece evolve?
AH: My friend Deborah and I were getting ready to go out to the bar. She tried on one particularly low-cut blouse and then rejected it, saying, “When I wear this I feel as if my breasts are having conversations with other people without my knowing it.” I thought, what if that were true?
So in this case, that was the kernel, and then there were lots and lots of ugly drafts while I figured out what the story was actually about, besides runaway breasts. Certain scenes developed that I knew were keepers, and then those led to other good scenes and gradually, the story emerged.
Q: Do you think the story is created in the subconscious early on, and it’s just a matter of fishing it out, bringing it to the surface?
AH: There’s no doubt that the subconscious does a lot of work in creative writing. I’ve often had the experience of writing along and throwing in some little detail for no particular reason, only later to find that detail to be crucial to solving some plot problem. An example of that is the scene in Inventing Memory where Shula sleeps with a shepherd in the Temple of the Harlots. At the time that I wrote it, it was just an interesting interlude, but later, I needed a reason for her to get kicked out of the temple of the scribe priestesses, and wouldn’t you know, I’d provided myself with one.
But I wouldn’t go so far as to say the process is entirely subconscious. I think it’s more of an interplay between the subconscious and the conscious mind.
Q: Your novels, Inventing Memory, Accidental Creatures, and The Nature of Smoke are all futuristic sci-fi thrillers with ultra-unique plots, including creating a virtual pathway between myth and reality.
AH: My plots evolve out of the characters and their motivations. I ask myself things like, what does Wendy want? Or, what is the worst possible thing that could happen to Ray at this point? Basically, it’s creating people that I care about and then doing horrible things to them.
Q: Have you ever had trouble with this – doing those horrible things?
AH: Heh. I used to. But as I got to be a better writer, I recognized that being softhearted makes for a boring story, so no, I don’t have trouble with that anymore.
Q: How do your plots evolve, and did any of your concepts begin as short stories?
AH: My new novel, the one I just turned in to my agent, started out as a short story. But there was way too much there to be just a short story. It was destined for novelhood.
Q: What demanded the bigger template – the characters, the plot or both?
AH: Actually, the setting. I had set out to write a simple quest story. It was supposed to be a novella, at the most, but it was set on another planet, with three cultures that were all very different from our own. All these details kept cropping up that needed explanation, and as I started explaining them, and exploring these three cultures, I realized that what I had on my hands was not a simple quest story at all, but a world-spanning novel of three cultures in conflict. The book is entitled Libyrinth and it’s out to market at the moment.
Q: Tell us a little about your other novels.
AH: I wrote The Nature of Smoke, my first novel, in the first full flush of my lifelong love-affair with Chaos Theory. It’s a frenetic anthem for the overturn of dichotomous thinking. The Nature of Smoke is currently out in Japan in translation, where it is on the short list for the Sense of Gender Award.
Accidental Creatures is a near-future labor union story. I wrote it during the newspaper strike here in Detroit in the mid to late nineties, when basically, Knight-Ridder broke the union. Only in my story, it’s the living polymer industry, not newpapers, and instead of breaking the union, the company winds up at the mercy of its own genetically-engineered scab workers. Accidental Creatures won the Spectrum Award for science fiction with glbt characters, themes and issues in 1999, the first year it was given.
Inventing Memory originated with my experiences as a Dianic (women only) Wiccan in my mid-twenties. I was pretty radical back then, rejecting the concept of romantic love and all of that, and then I fell in love with a man I’d been friends with for eleven years and my whole life changed. I changed and my politics changed, but I remained a feminist. That’s what Inventing Memory is about… that and the ancient Sumerian myth cycle of Inanna.
Oh, and my husband Steve will probably want me to mention that he shares neither background nor profession with the character Ray in the book. ;)
Q: These story concepts are so unique! You really pull from what’s going on around you and then morph, morph, morph. How do you decide how far to go when you’re twisting story ideas into something that’s all your own?
AH: Hmm. It’s really the other way around. I write the story because I feel strongly about it, and then, later, sometimes years later, I connect it to what was happening at the time and go, “Oh, that’s why I wrote that.”
Q: What drives your creative process?
AH: When I boil it all down? Emotion. I like to feel intense emotions, and I like to make other people feel them too.
Q: When I look at the kernels for your novels–being a feminist, the union strike, your interest in Chaos Theory–it seems these are all things based on a deep-seated passion. Do you think if this love of topic wasn’t there, you might not be interested in being married to the idea for the length of a novel? Or, another way, do you find that if the emotion isn’t there for you, the writing suffers for it?
AH: Oh definitely. Writing fiction is too difficult to do it for something I don’t really care about. I have to be “married to the idea” (good way of putting it), or I’d never stick with it. I have a trunk full of story fragments that were intellectually interesting, but which I didn’t finish, because my heart wasn’t in it.
And yes, the writing suffers too. Lackluster prose is always a good indication that I’m on the wrong track.
Q: What are your favorite books, and who are your favorite short-story authors or poets?
AH: Ooh boy, not asking much there!
Obviously any listing of favorite books I make is of the moment. It would be impossible to be permanently truthful in reponse to such a question. But, at the moment:
Little, Big by John Crowley
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Wholeness and the Implicate Order by David Bohm
Be Free Where You Are by Thich Nhat Hahn
The Night Watch by Sean Stewart
Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
Neuromancer by William Gibson
The Temple of my Familiar by Alice Walker
Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase
I’m sadly ill-read when it comes to short stories and poetry. I loved Gene Wolfe’s anthology, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories, and Other Stories. I read that when I was first starting to write, and I was blown away by it.
Q: What do you recommend for a writer who wants to try the short story? Where do you begin?
AH: Ooh. I don’t think I can be of much help there, very sorry. I pretty much just flog away at stuff until it takes shape. It’s a very innefficient way of working and I wouldn’t recommend it. But if you do find you’re stuck with that process, be kind to yourself, be patient, and persevere.
Q: Any resource books on the topic that you’ve used or would recommend? Websites?
AH: Oh, good question. Yes. Back in the day, when I still had writer’s block issues, I found Natalie Goldberg’s books, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, to be wonderful help. More recently, as I’ve been coming to grips with more mechanical issues like plotting and pacing, I was fortunate enough to come across a book called Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s one of the few places where you’ll find a really useful analysis of story structure. Swain wrote for the pulps, and his advice on keeping readers reading is great — just ignore some of the more dated assumptions he makes about characters.
Q: Do you have any tips on marketing short stories? What’s the best way to locate markets?
AH: I use Writer’s Market sometimes. But again, I don’t sell that many stories, actually, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.
One thing that helps me is when I send a story out, I select the next market I’ll send it to if it gets rejected. Sometimes I go so far as to print out a cover letter and address a fresh envelope. I hate letting those rejected mss. sit around. Get ’em back out there where there’s still hope, ’cause there’s no hope while it’s sitting on your desk.
(Too true!) Thanks so much, Anne Harris, for a great interview!