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A Conversation With Kristine Kathryn Rusch
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke
December 1998

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has sold over 30 novels and well over a 100 short stories. She has authored a number of novels, including White Mists of Power, Heartreaders and Traitors. She has won the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and the Hugo Award. For 6 years, she edited the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her husband Dean Wesley Smith write novels and short fiction together and separately, both under their own names and under the name Sandy Schofield. As well as writing, they have edited anthologies and major magazines. They live together, along with their seven cats, on a hilltop in Oregon overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Alien Influences

Hitler's Angel
Alien Influences
Black Queen
Fey 1
Star Wars
White Mists of Power

Few people have had as diverse an impact on science fiction and fantasy as Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Winner of the John W. Campbell Award in 1990 for best new writer, Rusch made her mark with powerfully emotional short stories. In 1989 she shared a World Fantasy Award with her husband and collaborator, Dean Wesley Smith, for their work on Pulphouse: A Hardback Magazine. From 1991-1997 she edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for which she won the Hugo Award for best editor in 1994. Recently, she has refocused her energies on her writing career.

It's been well over a year since you turned over the editorial reigns of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to Gordon Van Gelder. Have you suffered any withdrawals?

No, not really. I miss the readers. There was quite a conversation going on with the readers. They tend to write a lot of letters, have opinions -- I miss that quite a bit. I suspect that within a year or so, I'm going to miss the contact with the new writers, but I was approaching burnout. I was getting tired. So I'm just in that recovery stage at the moment, and I suspect once I get through it, I'm going to be like, "Whoa. Who are these new writers coming up, and how come I don't know about them?" I might have to do a project or something to figure out who they are.

You were editor there for six years. What insight did you, as a writer, gain from working in the editorial side of the business?
Actually, what I gained as a writer is hard to quantify on the art level. I can see a quantum difference in my own writing -- especially in short fiction -- because something went into the back of the brain that wasn't there before. As far as what I can actually talk about, what I learned was the business of writing. I learned what it's like to be on the editor's side of the desk, that it's difficult, that it's not always as cut and dried as it seems. There are publishing issues that have to be considered.

I think editors work much harder than writers ever give them credit for. I learned that there are writers that are fun to work with and there are writers that are incredibly difficult to work with, and there are writers I would never work with again. So applying that to myself as a writer means that I want to be one of those writers that is easy to work with and somebody you like to have around, simply because you get more work that way.

So what'd you learn that came as a surprise?
I didn't expect writers to be hard to work with. I'd always listened to hard luck stories of several writers, and I figured "Wow, life treated them hard." Gradually I realized, no, that wasn't the case. To give a corporate analogy, if you're working in an office, they're the ones who come in and mess up the place, and work very hard at not working. Writing, like any other profession, has a few of those people. They complain the loudest about not getting paid, and yet they're the ones who don't really do the work. These usually aren't published writers. These are writers who want to break into the business. It was quite a revelation. I was quite shocked.

It's long been said that the real innovation and trends in science fiction and fantasy emerge first from short fiction. What new directions did you see develop while you were editor?
There were the abuse themes. A lot of people were beginning to speak out about various abuse issues -- mostly in fantasy. In science fiction, I noticed that the writers were reluctant to talk about far-futures. It was almost as if they were frightened of it, and I think that's changing, slowly. It was just beginning to change just as I was leaving, but they were reluctant to deal with outer space science fiction, which I found really frustrating as an editor, because that's one of the roots of science fiction. I think there was an awful lot of contemporary fantasy that was very, very good, up until about 1991 and 92. Then people said "Oh! Contemporary fantasy sells!" And they weren't doing work as good. That always happens. You have the innovators, and then you have the folks who come in and see that it sells and try to do the same thing, and it's not quite as good. I think we're going to be seeing a lot of cloning stories in the near future, and I don't think that's a bad thing. It's a good thing, because the technology has made an advance and it's time for science fiction to talk about it. That's pretty much how it works. I'm hoping the writers are going to look forward a little bit more.

Why was it that Contemporary Fantasy suddenly caught fire? It's not exactly a new concept.
Actually, I think it's not Contemporary Fantasy that's really taken a boom, it's that sub-genre, Urban Fantasy, that's taken a huge boom and went in new directions. What I'm really thinking of when I talk about that is Emma Bull, Will Shetterly and that whole Minneapolis group initially that went at it. Then Charles de Lint and Jane Yolen started doing this kind of work, and a handful of other people. They were taking fantasy tropes and they weren't writing about what you would expect. They were taking elves and putting them in the middle of Minneapolis, and they were using werewolves in whole new ways. Charles de Lint took Native American mysticism, and he used it to explore the way that the world works now. Talk about a whole aspect of the culture that hardly anybody's ever talked about before in our genre. We do have a mystical aspect to Western culture. Most people ignore it, but it exists in contemporary America. There is an underlying belief that the urban fantasists really tapped into, and did so in a unique and original way.

Let's backtrack a bit. You mentioned there wasn't much far-future science fiction being written, even though that was the core of the field for years and years. What happened? Are writers afraid of the future?
This is a guess about what's going on with writers: They're terrified that with changing technology, their story's going to be out of date 15 years from now, even though it's set in the year 2060. Well, I think that's likely, because even if you set a story in the year 2000, chances are you'll have anachronisms if it's written in 1997. Also, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke so dominated the field that I think it took a long time for us to notice that no one else was doing it.

That's changing, though, isn't it? You can go into almost any bookstore and find works by Greg Bear or Greg Benford along with newer writers.
Bear and Benford were always doing it. I think Greg Egan is a good case in point. Rob Sawyer's been taking some looks at some far stuff. Some of Sean Stewart's stuff is near-future, but still has that feel of far future. I think a lot of folks are taking a look at it. A lot of folks are taking a look at it and saying "What kind of stories can we tell?" and beginning to realize that we can tell some really interesting stories in the far future. Again, I think the Mars Pathfinder mission, and a lot of the deep space stuff that NASA's doing -- I mean, science fiction fed NASA for years and inspired them, and now I think NASA's staring to inspire science fiction writers again. And I think that's a cool thing. I can't touch on this topic without saying that part of the reason science fiction writers are not exploring far-future science fiction is because Star Trek has done it, and is doing it and it has pervaded the culture in such a way that a lot of the people believe that this may be the way the future is going to be structured.

You yourself have done a lot of work in media tie-ins, both with Star Trek and Star Wars. What's the appeal?
It is the ultimate fan fic. Star Wars and Star Trek have taken over our love of space opera in many, many areas. Kids will come in and they'll start reading those books first. I believe we need transition books after those where they can read space opera àla Star Trek and àla Star Wars and then they want to read space opera àla Greg Bear, say, but they need a stepping stone in between. Hardly anyone is writing that. Lois McMaster Bujold is writing it, and there are a handful of others, but not enough. There should always be more, because there are an awful lot of kids who drop out of the science fiction field after they've read their Star Trek novels simply because they can't get the same fix. I can only do media tie-ins that I love. I love Star Wars, I love Star Trek. I want to be able to have a starting place for kids to read. Not just my fiction, but science fiction. If they're going to be reading Star Trek books, why not have them read Star Trek books with real science in them?

You're allowed to use real science in them?
Sure you are. There were years there when it wasn't happening, but now there's an awful lot of these books that do use real science. Now, with Star Wars I had a great time, because you can't do real science, but you can do the stuff that was in the Lensmen series, that sort of thing. I have an asteroid belt that simply could not exist in nature in my Star Wars book. Each asteroid has a different environment, okay? It was immensely freeing, because all I had to concentrate on was the story. And sometimes our quest for getting our science right or getting our history right or getting our facts right withers the story.

Media tie-ins have caught more flack recently for dumbing-down science fiction and taking up shelf space.
Yeah, I've heard that too. I don't believe it. At all. The mid-list was in trouble anyway. It's a separate problem. The mid-list was in trouble because the books weren't selling. Publishing's changed in the last 15 years. Bookstores now have computer inventory systems, so instead of having a publisher tell them "Yes, yes. Kris Rusch's books sell really well," now they can look on the computer and see whether or not Kris Rusch's books really do sell well. That killed a lot of books. The wholesale distribution network has changed -- that also killed markets for books. It had nothing to do with media tie-ins.

Obviously, editing took up much of your time, and your writing suffered for it. Now that you've freed yourself up, you've started getting back to your roots in short fiction.
I was a very prolific short story writer, and I pretty much stopped. I was looking at my bibliography the other day. In 1991 I had something like 20 short stories published, and in 1992 it was maybe 13, and in 1993 it was like eight and 1994 it was six, and 1995 it was two, and 1996 it was one. You could look at it and see the decline in my short fiction as a result of working at F&SF. The novels didn't get hurt, just the short stories, and part of that was because I was reading so many of them, and thinking how to make other people's short stories better instead of thinking of my own. But a lot of it was really time related. I was working half-time at F&SF, I was getting paid half-time salary, yet I was putting in 40 hours a week, and writing novels 40 hours a week. I was really, really working hard, and some of it was just plain-old tiredness that I didn't realize until I quit.

So why is it that your novels, the more time-intensive projects, didn't suffer instead of your short fiction?
Because a novel is easy. It's not easy to write a novel, but a novel is... Most of my novels come from my short stories, so the actual difficulty of creation happens in the short story, not the novel. Once the novel is in place, once I know what I'm going to write about, I don't have to go through the moulding process. It's very difficult to describe, but if you think of it as working in clay, the short story is where I figure out what I'm going to make -- whether I'm going to make a pot or an urn. And the novel is actually making it into the shape and putting the paint on it. But I had already figured out what for me is the tough part, whether it's going to be a pot or an urn. I think one of the reasons I ended up having to quit F&SF at the point I did was because I was not ready to make short stories. I wasn't taking those risks, and didn't have the emotional energy to take those risks. So I looked down the road, and in about three years I wouldn't have had any novels left to write. It all would've went away.

You say you tackle the more emotional, gut-wrenching topics in your short fiction. Gallery of His Dreams was one of the high points in your early short fiction career. It's an emotionally draining story to read -- was it that way to write?
You should ask my husband that question. The first draft of that story -- Gallery of His Dreams is a novella -- was 3,000 words long, and I thought it was brilliant. And I handed it to him and I asked "What do you think?" and he said "It makes no sense." Now what you miss in this exchange was that he was hiding behind the refrigerator at the time, with the door open, because he knew that would really, really upset me. And it did. So we had quite a bit of shouting after that, at which point I realized that yes, he was right. It was 3,000 words and it made no sense at all. He said "Write it so that it makes sense to me." And I did, and I ended up with a 20,000 word novella. The 3,000 words were gut-wrenching, but the novella wasn't.

That's a story where everything came together and worked. Now that you've returned to short fiction, do you expect to achieve that kind of resonance, that intensity again?
Oh, I've seen authors do it all the time. Speaking as an editor, it's definitely possible, but I'll tell you when it's not possible: It's not possible for the author who tries to do it. If I were to look at Gallery of His Dreams and say "Okay, it's a novella. It's a Civil War story. It's got science fiction in it." If I try to write another Civil War-science fiction novella to recapture Gallery of His Dreams, it wouldn't be as good. And, chances are, if I'm going to write another story that's going to be as good as Gallery of His Dreams, I'm not going to know it, not until I'm in the process of writing it, or maybe even after I'm finished. You just have to trust the process. If you trust the process, you end up catching lightning in a bottle again somewhere down the road.

Do you think that's why so many series begin strongly and then decline in future volumes?
I think a series is a different matter. It depends on how the writer plans the series. If the writer plans to write three books or ten books or whatever it's going to be, if it's initially planned as that kind of project from the beginning, chances are all the books are going to be good, or of equivalent quality. If the writer writes a book and then has all their fans come up afterward and say "Oh, you should write another one in X world," or the editor saying "You know, I'd love to see more books in this world," I think you end up with books that aren't as good. I think it really has to be planned from the beginning. I also think that the minute a writer gets really tired of what they're doing, they should quit.

Have you seen that a lot?
Yeah, I've seen writers get tired. Sometimes all they need is a couple years' break from the project, but sometimes they really need to say "I'm done." It's hard if the project is making that writer a lot of money. For heaven's sake, Conan Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Holmes and it didn't work.

You're currently working on your own ongoing fantasy series, The Fey. What makes you believe you have a concept that can sustain such a long-term project?
I was a history major in college, and I just tend to accumulate weird facts. They hit the surface of my brain and they just stick there. I got the idea for The Fey somewhere in 1981 or 82, but it wasn't anything really developed. When I started working on The Fey, I described it to my editor as a Hundred Years' War. Now, if you've read The Fey, you realize I haven't gotten anywhere close to a hundred years. We're in the first twenty years, and I'm starting in on book five. If this series sells well, I could probably go the full hundred years. It may take me twenty years to write, but I know the cycle is going to be long. We're talking War of the Roses here. And there are a lot of stories in there, and they don't necessarily have to be about the same characters. As I wrote the first book, I realized I'd started in the wrong place. Essentially, I'd started in year fifty of my hundred years' war, and to explain what was going to happen, I had to go back. So really, we're talking 150 years, but I don't want to scare people.

What does working in a long-term series allow you to do as opposed to single volume works?
Well, for me it's no different than doing a shorter book, except that it's longer -- because the whole story in my head is a long story. It does give me time to play with certain characters I probably wouldn't have played with and other aspects, but that's probably not true either, because they're all important to the story I'm trying to tell. A story is as long as it needs to be. I could never have written this series if I didn't have a story long enough to tell. It affords some freedom, but mostly it's more complex than I expected off the top. I have probably a thousand pages of notes that are arranged in the order of a history text. I mean, my Windows file is like "Fey Culture" and "Magic" and subheadings under that. If you want the textbook on The Fey I've got it. It's not in any great order, but it's there, because I needed it to check myself on facts as I'm going along.

Well, you're just that much more prepared for when your publisher wants to come out with The Guide to the World of The Fey.
Hey, I'm there. Of course, somebody would have to put it in some coherent order and put real sentences in there.

You were a finalist for the Clarke Award in 1995 for Alien Influences, a book that didn't come out in the U.S. until 1997. How'd that unusual situation happen?
I didn't screw it up -- my publisher screwed it up. Alien Influences is a book that initially sold to New American Library. There were quite a bit of interesting publishing problems at the house that had everything to do with the publisher, who was intent on killing the book line at that point. One of the books she wanted to murder was mine. It was Traitors, actually, that got really caught in that mess, and my agent at the time said "Uh oh. If they're going to publish Traitors in the toilet, that means your career is over, because Alien Influences won't get published at all." So we pulled the book, we bought it back -- and that's what happened.

Ultimately, the situation's turned out rather well for you. The recognition your book's gotten in Britain certainly doesn't hurt matters any.
I think so. I hope so. Having the prestige of being an Arthur C. Clarke finalist is just thrilling to me. I was at Clarion with Geoffrey Landis and a number of other hard science fiction writers who were really teasing me about my history background instead of my science background. And so when I got nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award, I called Geoff and I said "Geoff, I did it -- with a history background!"

Apart from your fantasy and science fiction, you're staking out new territory -- historical mystery -- with Hitler's Angel. That's a little bit of a departure for you, isn't it?
Actually, it's not. If you look at Gallery of His Dreams, which is a historical novella, Hitler's Angel was started out as a historical, alternate history novella. Hitler's niece was murdered, in his apartment, under suspicious circumstances in 1931. If that case had been solved and Hitler had been found guilty -- I have no doubt he was guilty of that murder -- the entire history of the Western world would've changed, and millions of lives would've been saved. But as I started writing that alternate history novella, I realized that while I have a great imagination -- this is a very sad thing to say -- I'm not sure I have the capacity to imagine a world without Hitler. What kind of world would we be sitting in in 1998 if we hadn't had that huge cataclysm of World War II? Maybe I will write that someday, but at that point when I sat down to write that particular book I couldn't figure it out.

So what changed that allowed you to make it a novel?
I looked at the project again and realized I did have a detective story. We know from the beginning that the detective's going to fail -- how do you make it interesting? And that became the writing problem instead. I didn't think the book was going to sell. I though it was too arty. Here you have a mystery novel where you know exactly how it's going to end and you know he's going to fail. And it sold right out of the chute, and everybody's quite excited about it. I'm really pleased with it. It turned out the way I wanted it to.

(This interview first appeared in the December 1998 issue of Interzone.)

Copyright © 1998 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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