Interview: Lois McMaster Bujold
by Sharon Archer
Review by Sharon Archer
SFRevu Article ISBN/ITEM#: 0409LMBI
Date: Spetember 15, 2004 /
On the day after Paladin of Souls earned the author her 4th Best Novel Hugo (in the history of Hugos only Robert A Heinlein has won more often in this category) before dashing off to the hospital to visit Bruce and rushing back for Masquerade, I had the pleasure of sitting on a comfy couch chatting with Lois McMaster Bujold about her recent win, her past successes and her future plans. Joined by WSFA President and SFRevu contributor Sam Lubell and a few members of the con's Press Relations we engaged in an informal, yet informative exchange -- the gist of which follows.
The Art of Writing: Characters First
Lois describes her wiring as linear; she begins at a starting point and works through the story using a single viewpoint which keeps the material under control. In A Civil Campaign she started with several characters but found when you give them a viewpoint, the story starts to wrap around them.
While Lois is in control of the stories, certain characters create what she describes as gravity well around them that just sucks you in and this is true for both the reader and the author. A brief appearance by a carrier girl Liss in The Curse of Chalion so attracted the author's attention that she made it into the next book. This was true of another character too; Ista tired to become a major character in the first book and feeling that her story was unfinished, the ending of that novel represented a promise to both Ista and Lois that the character would have her own story. The Paladin of Souls was the fulfillment of this pledge.
She uses notes as a memory aid and when 3-4 ideas come together to make a "circuit" a new novel takes form. For Lois a story begins with the characters first, she then builds the story around them, creating a back-story for them and then turning them loose allowing them to create themselves through their own actions. Sometimes while the story is developing if she takes a wrong turn a character will sit down and strike until she moves in the right direction.
It is the characters that draw readers back to her stories time and again -- desiring to re-visit with beloved friends. If reading for ideas alone, Lois explained, you only need to read a book once and then would miss a lot of cards she is palming that make the book a different read 2nd time through.
Fantasy Vs Science Fiction
When asked if she takes a different approach to writing Fantasy than writing SF, Lois explained that she follows the same process, beginning in the same way, with the characterizations, sequencing and world building - providing a political and social structure to support the story.
Borders of Infinity while an action story actually an allegory of grace -- while most don't notice the subtext it is what gives the story an underpinning that gives it power.
Lois considers the novels set in the Chalion universe as separate and self contained stories which can stand alone. [I'm not too sure about that -- inspired by our conversation I've recently begun reading The Paladin of Souls and find myself yearning to go back and read The Curse of Chalion first (but I don't want to stop reading this one long enough to do that)-- of course perhaps that is because Lois is such a good writer that she makes you become immediately vested in the characters and you want to know all you can about them (ah--the gravity well)]
She believes that there are two sorts of readers -- those who are conscious of language and those for whom the words are transparent -- who see a movie in their head as they read. She considers herself one of the latter and has had to work at being sure to satisfy both types of readers. She feels she has improved her language control. [I will certainly attest to that. Although I enjoy a well plotted and nicely paced story, and much enjoyed her Vorkosigan Saga books, I will admit to being very conscious of the language when I read -- my favorite authors combining the ability to write great stories, beautifully. As Lois matures as a person and a writer I find myself enjoying her works even more than before.]
When the subject turned to authors who most influenced her Lois said "the usual SF suspects" -- Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith, Roger Zelazney, in addition to Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, whose British boy adventure stories she had read not realizing at the time, they were not addressed to her. I was quite pleased to have her also acknowledge a great favorite of mine (and of many others), Georgette Heyer who she cited as the most unrecognized major influence in 20th century literature. [ One of the most enjoyable panels I sat in on during the Millennium Philcon in 2001 was "Space and Sensibility" wherein Lois and fellow panelists (including Ellen Asher and Connie Willis) extolled the virtues and value of both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.]
Although she may follow the same basic process, the results are quite different both in subject matter and tone between the author's extremely popular ongoing SF series the Vorkosigan Saga, and her more reflective Chalion fantasy series.
I asked Lois if the stage of her own life has affected what she wants to write about now and she agreed that she had reached a point where she was ready to address other issues, such as the examination of religion and older women issues.
As successful and gratifying that the Vorkosigan novels have been for Lois, they are written from Miles view point and are not the vehicle needed to grapple with the ethical questions Lois/Ista wish/need to address.
The universe of Chalion has permitted Lois to examine tradition religious concepts by creating a system totally different from ours. Here matter created the gods, not the other way around.. There is no concept of heaven/hell as reward/punishment. There is an afterlife only if you accept the gods, otherwise one just fades away. In discussing the 5 gods of Chalion Lois said that they are like a dysfunctional family. And while they have no physical material power and can only act through people, they can effect dreams.
With Paladin of Souls the author explores issues the 40ish Dowager Queen needs to work through now that she had come out of her "curse" and is no longer mad, has lost her husband, no longer has the responsibility of children and wants to now make her own life. In order to "escape" her home she uses a fake pilgrimage, the only acceptable way for a woman in her position to leave her home and travel about. Ista is pissed off about a lot of things and has a very adversarial relationship with the gods. In time, the pilgrimage becomes a real one, a journey of adventure and redemption during which Ista finds her own path.
Next up for Lois will be the June 2005 release of The Hallowed Hunt, a re-examination of the world of Chalion from another angle with new characters and a new setting but with the same 5 gods.
Asked if Miles will now reappear she admitted that she doesn't want to deal with the next stage -- children, and has no desire to write Vor - The Next Generation. She also mentioned that the next major event that needs to be faced in this series is Mile's father's death and Lois is not ready to deal with that yet either.
I reminded Lois of something she had said in her first interview with us in 1998 that really struck me at that time and of all the author interviews I've read in the intervening years this one quote has stayed with me. We had asked her if she had given any thought to sharing her literary universe with other authors. She had replied: "Urk. No, I don't think so. My take on this is, I have had to share, at various times throughout my personal life, my house, my time, my energy, my refrigerator, my car, my bank account, my bed, and my body. My books are, by God, the one thing in my life I don't have to share. They are mine alone. They are also the one thing I've been able to make go really right."
She hasn't changed her mind.
I was born two months before Lois, and like her and Ista no longer have the husband of my early adulthood, my children mostly grown (the youngest turned 18 today). Ista is a character who resonates with me, and also with the author -- she is a woman who has reached a turning point in her life, what lies ahead as we move from being a nurturer of our children with our lives always focused in part on others, towards our mature years remains to be seen. We find the need to redefine ourselves, to refocus, to renew.
One of the last comments she made was that she strip-mined herself for ideas. Fortunately for her (and for us) she has the means and talent to work through past and current issues through her powerful writing.
She concluded the interview with an admission that she has the dream job -- yes there are slog through days but the rewarding days are so rewarding! And so they are, for all her readers too.