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A Conversation With Elizabeth Moon
Part 2 of an interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke
November 1999

Elizabeth Moon
Photo © Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon grew up in south Texas, 250 miles south of San Antonio and eight miles from the Mexican border. She attended Rice University and joined the US Marines in 1968. With a second degree in biology, she entertained thoughts about going to med school after her husband, but circumstances intervened.

Elizabeth Moon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Rules of Engagement
SF Site Review: Remnant Population
Christina Schulman: Rules of Engagement, Once a Hero and Remnant Population
Peter D. Tillman: The Heris Serrano Books

Winning Colors
The Deed of Paksennarion
Rules of Engagement
Remnant Population

Elizabeth Moon established herself in the late 1980s with the popular The Deed of Paksennarion trilogy, in which she presented a starkly realistic fantasy world. She has collaborated with Anne McCaffrey on several novels, and her short fiction has been collected in two volumes: Lunar Activity and Phases. Moon's science fiction has been as well-recieved as her fantasy, with her 1997 effort, Remnant Population appearing on the final Hugo ballot for best novel. Her latest novel, Change of Command, follows the continuing exploits of Esmay Suiza from the far-flung future of Once a Hero, Winning Colors and Rules of Engagement.

Part 1 of the interview ran in the last issue. Here is the remainder.

You have degrees in both history and biology -- that's not the most common of double-majors.
Actually, it wasn't a double-major. My first degree came years before my second. I had wanted to be a physicist, but I flunked calculus. Hard to be a physics major at Rice University if you have flunked calculus. So I switched majors to history, because I had been so impressed by my freshman history professor. I studied mostly ancient and medieval, with some renaissance and modern history. I loved history, but still loved science, and thought maybe you don't need quite as much calculus to be a biology major. So when I got out of the military, I went back to school in biology, and earned a biology degree at the University of Texas, and then did some graduate work in it.

As a science fiction and fantasy writer, that's pretty much covered all the bases.
Yes, very handy. I didn't know that at the time. I was writing fiction, but not finishing fiction. I would start stories and not finish them because they always got too long. I didn't really believe I'd ever write professionally. It was a hobby. It was something to play with. I think the first time anyone seriously suggested that I do it professionally was a friend of mine in graduate school. I was writing a science fiction story during a particularly boring seminar, and she caught me at it. She was sitting beside me, reading what I was writing. After several classes, she said, "You really ought to publish that."

You joined the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam war because you saw it as a challenge. You don't back down from challenges, do you?
I probably do more now that I'm getting older. I used to not back down from a challenge. I thought I had to answer every single challenge that anyone threw out, however irrelevant. Except some kinds of dares I never did. I am probably one of the few people from the '60s era who can say honestly I never smoked pot at all. I didn't want to. I regarded drugs as somewhat like rattlesnakes -- it's possible to pick one up without getting bit, but why bother? Also, if you have glasses as thick as mine, you can get an alternate reality just by getting mist on your lenses. You really don't need to do anything else.

So then, what are some challenges you did take up?
Certainly all the way through school, taking as much science and math as I could was a challenge. There was an advisor in my high school who didn't want me to take the science and math major work courses. He thought girls shouldn't. Going to Rice University as a science-engineering major, at first there were a lot of people who said "You're not smart enough. You shouldn't do that. You're taking the place of a boy." I was physically active, as much as possible. There were hardly any sports for girls when I was growing up, but I loved to race the guys and climb trees and all that sort of stuff. Then going into the Marine Corps was definitely accepting a challenge, especially then. I got well chewed-on by my college mates for that. And then -- it's odd for a science fiction writer, probably -- a challenge that came to me when I was still in the Marine Corps was to rejoin the church. I had been a lapsed Christian for several years at that point, and I had one solid, walloping, conversion experience.

And what was that?
It's difficult to explain unless you've been through it yourself. I had gone to Christmas services at the National Cathedral simply because I still liked Christmas music, and it was the National Cathedral, and I'd grown up Episcopalian. I was sitting there in the middle of the service, and got a psychological whop upside the head. That's the best way I can describe it. A sudden sense that God wanted me. All those other people in the cathedral were not enough. He wanted my soul too. And I sat there and thought about it a long time. It took me several months to get over what had happened and to get myself turned around.

So, you're heavily involved with the church now?
No, I'm not involved with a church right this minute. I have been. I've taught Sunday school, I've sung in the choir, I directed a choir. I've done a lot of church work over the years, but at the moment we're not involved. There have been changes in the Episcopal church, making it to my mind more fundamentalist. Which is not the tradition I grew up in, or one that I can handle. If everybody's not welcome, then I'm not welcome either. If I can't bring my friends to church and know that they will be welcomed no matter who they are, then I have some serious problems with that.

Apart from your involvment with choir, you're also very into classical music.
Oh yes. I love classical music.

So who's your favorite composer?
Oh, boy. That's always a fight. If I had to be marooned with only one, it would be an argument between Bach and Beethoven. And I really don't think I could give up either. I'd have to just hear one in my head while you stuck me with the other. Mozart, of course. Brahms. Schubert I love. I also like a lot of the Russian composers of the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Moussorgski, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky... who's the one I'm forgetting? Borodin.

So what music do you play?
I play very simple things, because I did not have a lot of musical training as a child. I have books of the great composers -- simple works for beginners, because that's what I can play. I also like ragtime a lot. I like some country. The only thing I really don't get along with is most rock, and I don't know why. I know other people who like classical and rock. I like the Beatles, of course, but that's when I grew up. I never liked Elvis. This is really awful. My girlfriends were just going crazy about Elvis, and I was sitting there going "Ugh." I think I didn't like the look on his face. I didn't think he was sexy, I thought he was petulant. That will get me mobbed by ten million Elvis fans.

What instruments do you play?
Piano and, of all weird things, the accordion. I used to play for the German club parties when I was at Rice, because I could play the accordion and pick things up by ear. In fact, three of us had a weird little trio that was accordion, cello and mandolin. That makes a very interesting sound.

Not the most common three-piece combo.
No, but a cello is the perfect string bass for an accordion. Works with it beautifully.

Can you see anything on the horizon?
I usually have stuff fermenting, but I'm feeling snakebit because the book I tried to write that died, I had clearly in mind and thought it was going to do itself. I'm now afraid to say what I have in my mind, lest something else suffer the same fate. I know I will be doing more in the Familius Regnus universe. I don't know when I'll get back into the fantasy universe, because of having that one bad experience. It's a universe that requires very intense concentration on my part, and I have to be sure I can get there, sink into that world and make it real in every detail.

Compare your work now to what you've done in the past. How have you grown as a writer?
I have more of the tools to handle the technical problems that come up in every book. When I started out, for instance, I didn't know how to do multiple viewpoints at all. And now I do. I had a lot more trouble with transitions. When I first wrote the Paks books, I wrote them literally moment by moment. I wrote down everything from that period of several years. Then I had to take stuff out. Now I can look at a project, estimate about how long it's going to be, where to make the cuts so I don't have to cut it as much. I still end up making more cuts than a lot of people do, because I'm a discovery-type writer. In terms of actual style and handling the language, I don't know that I'm better, but I know I'm more flexible. I know I can get characterization more through stylistic tools than just action tools -- if that makes sense. When I look back at things I was writing in my 20s and early 30s, I see a big change. But most of that change came from writing -- but not getting published -- through that whole period. I think if you write for twenty years, you're bound to improve some, from just the practice of it.

What about subject matter? What themes can you tackle now that you may have shied away from?
Well, I tried to tackle awfully big stuff with the first things of mine that got published. I think I could tackle the same themes better now. I think I could tackle some of the ethical and moral themes more clearly, more efficiently perhaps, although efficiently doesn't quite seem to be the right word to go with those. I think being moderately successful has given me enough clout that I can tackle something like Remnant Population and convince my publisher to let me do it. If you're stuck with being a "No cheap grace" kind of writer, then you're going to be stuck with big things. I really don't like books -- short stories it's okay, in a way -- but I really don't like books that are the "Cheap grace" kind of books. Things come too easy. There's not a price for accomplishment. I've never found accomplishment that easy. Certainly not when it comes to matters of the spirit. It's not easy to be brave. It's not easy to be honest. It's not easy to be responsible. And when it looks that way in a book, it's a lie -- or else other people are lots more talented than I am.

You're a writer that's considered a novelist, but what appeal do you find in short fiction?
When I was starting out, I did not do short fiction well, because I kept wanting to write books. And when I finally wrote books, the Paks books, then I could begin to write short fiction. What it let me do at first was to get published, because there was a market for short fiction, and there was not for long fiction. And since I had finally figured out from writing the long books about how much stuff fits in 1,000 words, I could then begin to shape stories that fit into much shorter lengths. On the whole, now, I write short fiction in one of two circumstances: Somebody's asked me for a story for an anthology, or a short story pops into my head -- from whence I do not know -- and just says "Here I am." I love the ones that do that. They're very rare, but they do that occasionally.

You took up professional writing at a more mature age than most writers. You've worked as a paramedic, been elected to city council, and a host of other things. Looking back, are you at all surprised you eventually became a professional writer?
I'm having a lot of fun doing it. I never thought growing up that I would be able to do writing as my main event. My mother thought it was highly impractical. She pointed out to me in high school that science fiction writers got a penny a word for writing in magazines, so how many words would I have to write every single week to make enough to live on? Even right before she died, she was even more astonished than I was that this was bringing in real money. But I thought I'd have to have another job, and write on the side. It turned out that I'm not very good at most other jobs, so writing became central to me much earlier... although I guess 40 isn't really early. I enjoy it. I love to write. There are, of course, days when I sit there, snarling at the computer and not enjoying it, but on the whole I enjoy it. I like it. It's fun to make things up. When they come alive, it's power.

Ah, would that be a god complex, then?
Mm-hm. In fact, it was after my first book got published that I finally understood some portions of the Old Testament that I had never understood before. It suddenly dawned on me that what God wanted was appreciative readers, not critics.

Copyright © 2000 by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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