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A Conversation With Nancy Kress
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Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. She went to college at State University of New York at Plattsburgh, receiving a degree in Elementary Education, and spent four years teaching the fourth grade. Her first sale was a story, "The Earth Dwellers," to Galaxy in 1976. Her first novel, The Prince of Morning Bells, appeared in 1981. Nancy Kress moved on to write copy for an advertising agency, wrote fiction part-time, raised her children, taught at SUNY Brockport, and earned an M.S. in Education and an M.A. in English. In 1990 she became a full-time writer. In January, 1998, she was married for the third time, to SF writer Charles Sheffield. They live in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Nancy Kress Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: David Brin's Out of Time: Yanked!
SF Site Review: Stinger
SF Site Review: Maximum Light
SF Site Review: Beaker's Dozen

Beggars in Spain
Beggar's Ride
Beggars & Choosers
The Aliens of Earth
Dancing on Air
Beaker's Dozen
Maximum Light
David Brin's Out of Time: Yanked!

This is Steve Pendergrast from, and today we have Nancy Kress with us, awarding winning science fiction and fantasy author. Welcome to Fictionwise, Nancy.
Thank you.

Let me start by asking you about your career early on. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I knew that quite late. I know friends who decided they were going to be a writer at seven or eight years old, which always astonishes me, because I was almost thirty before I started writing and I had no intention of doing it seriously. I was pregnant with my second child and stuck way out in the country with a toddler and a pregnancy and no car and I was going quietly nuts. So I started writing while the baby was napping. It was either that or soap operas and there are some things to which one does not descend.

(laughs) Exactly. It's interesting that you say that. I have been having conversations over email and so on with Damon Knight and he knew when he was a six- or seven-year-old that he would be a writer, but he also writes in his book Creating Short Fiction that you shouldn't really start to be a writer until you're at least thirty-five, because you don't know enough.
Well, I guess I was five years early!

So you were good. You were right in there. What was your first published story?
It was called "The Earth Dwellers" and the only reason I was able to sell it is that I was not plugged into any of the SF community. I didn't know there were conventions. I didn't know there was fandom. I barely knew there were magazines. So I sent it out to Galaxy, not knowing that Galaxy at that point was trembling on the verge of bankruptcy and had stopped paying its writers and as a result no one was sending them any material. Since I didn't know this and they were desperate for material they took my story which was not a very good one and published it and it took me three years to get my hundred and five dollars.

But you finally got it!
Finally I got it.

Mary Soon Lee actually posts on her website that she's not been paid, ever, for about six or seven of the stories that she's had accepted, so that was still good.
I've heard other people say the same thing. I was very persistent in my letter writing.

Yes, that's apparently very important... to keep submitting and submitting. And what year was that?
The story came out in 1976.

'76. And did that launch your career? Did it take many years after that to start being accepted on a more regular basis and in more of the major markets?
Well, again, I was raising two small children and I wasn't writing very much. I was also going to graduate school at night to earn my masters in English. So it was another year before I sold another story. And another year before I sold a third story. And then eventually both the pace of my writing as the kids got older and the acceptance level went up. But as I say, when I started I didn't really plan on doing this seriously.

So when did that change come for you? When did it become less of a hobby, or something you were kind of doing on the side, and more of something you thought maybe you could make into a career?
That was gradual. Some time in the eighties. And it was 1990 that I actually went full time. I had been working as a copy writer for an ad agency that did work mostly for Xerox Corporation in Rochester, New York. And I decided that it was taking far too much time and far too much energy, and so I left that job and became a full time writer in 1990. It was a sort of frightening step.

In 1985 you actually had a very successful story, "Out of All Them Bright Stars." Tell us a little bit about that.
Well, that was my first Nebula and of course I was extremely pleased to have it, but I went out again, naïve, knowing almost nothing, out to San Francisco for the Nebula presentations. And it turned out that in those days security was not as tight as it is now. And it was rumored that some people knew who had already won. And in fact it was rumored that Joe Haldeman had already won. So I went to the banquet thoroughly expecting that I had lost and it turned out that I hadn't. And if Connie Willis hadn't told me at lunch, quite severely, to prepare some remarks anyway... even if I thought I had lost, I would have had nothing to say except "Gee, this is heavy." I'm grateful to Connie.

(laughs) That's great. For those of our listeners who don't know about the awards scene, the Nebula is one of the two really major science fiction awards, for science fiction and fantasy I should say. The other one being the Hugo. And so you were taken by total surprise?
Pretty much, yes.

Did that immediately give a boost to your career? I suppose it did.
It had no effect whatsoever.

Awards for short fiction don't really affect sales of novels.

I see.
And although it's very nice to have the award, and the story will then be reprinted practically forever somewhere or other.

Right. Including!
Yes, on! But it doesn't seem to influence novel sales very much.

I see. I guess it's a different audience for novels than for short stories?
It is. And there is a different audience that actually follows the awards and a much larger audience that reads science fiction but again is completely ignorant of awards, fandom, SFWA, and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it.

Right. So other than giving you some income from reprints and maybe making it a little bit easier to make those short story sales, it was really kind of a non-event. Did you expect that? Were you disappointed?
No, I wasn't disappointed. Too much emphasis is actually placed on the Nebulas and Hugos in my opinion. Every year there are wonderful stories nominated and only one of them can win in a category. And we have made such a large thing about it that I actually know writers, whom I will not name, who have gone through therapy to deal with the issue that they've never won a Hugo or a Nebula. This is putting far too much emphasis on it. Because part of it is a question of 'where did your story appear,' which means 'who got to see it'... part of it is a popularity contest, and I don't mean that the stories that win are not good... almost always they are.

Really, all the ones that are even nominated are good.
Usually, yes. But sheer quality is not the only criterion, and if you lose, it doesn't mean that your story was of lesser quality.

Absolutely. So in 1985 you won that award and then you went on and I suppose over the next few years you decided, "You know, I should really do this full-time." You went full-time as you said in 1990. And the first work that you published as a full-time author was "Beggars in Spain."
Yes, it was.

Can you tell us, without giving away too much of the story for those of our listeners that haven't read it yet, can you give us the premise of "Beggars in Spain"?
"Beggars in Spain" was one of my first stories dealing with genetic engineering, a topic that has absorbed me ever since. And it has to do with the engineering of people who don't have to sleep. This came out of sheer jealousy. I need nine hours of sleep a night and I resent it bitterly, because I see people getting by with four or five and they can accomplish so much more. And the first time I tried to write about people who didn't need to sleep was actually thirteen years earlier, in the seventies, and the story was a mess. Everybody in the field rejected it. In fact Robert Silverberg rejected it twice, once for a magazine he was editing and once for an anthology he was editing. So I put the story away and I didn't work on it for six or seven years and then I took it out and wrote a different version and even I could see that this was dreadful, so I never sent that one out. But after thirteen years of gestation and some reading about various theories of sleep, I guess in 1990 the story was finally ready to be written.

Of course it's more than a story just about genetically engineering people who can't sleep. There are several very interesting ideas in there including economic ideas, in fact the name of the story is really a reference to an economic science theory.
Yes. In my early twenties, like many people, I became fascinated with Ayn Rand. And I read a lot of Ayn Rand... in fact I read everything... and I thought about these ideas, which I found very troubling, but I also found very compelling. So I thought about these and they stayed in my mind even after I had decided that objectivism was simply not a workable or a morally admirable social system. Then I discovered Ursula Le Guin. And Ursula Le Guin is at the direct polar opposite from Ayn Rand. Her societies are communal, property is de-emphasized, sharing forms a basis in all of them. If you were going to form a continuum, Ayn Rand and Ursula Le Guin would be at opposite ends of it.

So this gave me somebody else to think about in terms of economics. And part of "Beggars in Spain," especially the novel version, is an attempt to think about these things on paper and not to reconcile the two views because they can't be reconciled, but to try to pick my way along the continuum to see where I might reside along it.

So you're somewhere in between the two extremes.
Yes, somewhere in between. That's where I seem to always end up... 'middle of the roader.'

That comes out very clearly in the great final scene in the novella version where, you know I don't want to give it away, but everything comes together in that final scene.
Leisha T[ ], the heroine of the story, has been thinking about these same issues, although for her they are far more important since her father is a leading Yugaist, which is something like Ayn Rand's theory and she herself has a lot of money, which needs to have some severe thinking about what she is going to do with it.

I was never really in that position so mine would be theoretical.

Right. So this not only received tremendous critical acclaim, it won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and also launched a trilogy of books. You created a novel length version of the novella. Let's talk about novellas for a moment. Maybe some of our listeners may not be familiar with some terminology along those lines. Can you explain what a novella is?
It's a wholly artificial length that has been put up and set up for the purpose of the awards. For the purpose of the Hugo and Nebula a novella is a story between seventeen and a half and forty thousand words. And I prefer them as a length to write because it is long enough to set up another world with a lot of interesting detail but short enough that you only need to have one plot line whereas the novel usually has several different plot lines and you have to juggle them all. So you get an intensity of effect in a novella that you simply can't get in a novel but you also have enough room to work in.

So it's a mistake to think of a novella as just a short novel. It's really a different form.
It's really a different form. If I could make a living writing nothing but novellas, that's what I would do.

But one cannot.

The novel is the only way that you can really pay the bills.
Yes, it is. And when I finished "Beggars in Spain" I had a nagging feeling that there was a lot more to the story, so I wrote the first book and then I had a nagging feeling that there was a lot more to the story so I wrote the second book, and then my publisher had a nagging feeling that there was a lot more to the story so I wrote the third book.

(laughs) So the three stories in the trilogy are Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers, and Beggars Ride, for those of our listeners who want to check them out.
Yes. I see that a television series has suddenly appeared with Beggars and Choosers as its title but this has nothing to do with my book.

Oh, it's no relation at all. Ok. That's a good point.
No, not really. I would like to have it a television series.

Maybe you could get some royalties or something. You started "Beggars in Spain", as you mentioned, was one of the first stories you wrote with genetic engineering as its topic, and you had a bunch of others as well, and really your name, "Nancy Kress," has become really known for that field of science and science fiction. Can you explain some of the other ones. I know that up on Fictionwise we've got "Evolution", "Margin of Error", and "Dancing on Air", which all in one way or another have to do with genetics, and in the case with "Evolution," more bacterial type stuff.
Yes. This is going to be the century in which bio-engineering fully comes into its own in the way that physics did in the last century. And this is certainly not an original observation with me, but I think it's profoundly true.

And the human genome was just sequenced successfully a couple weeks ago.
Yes it was. And now that we have all the letters we have to find out what they mean.

And I think that the story possibilities in this coming biological revolution... actually it's not coming, we're in the middle of it... are just tremendous. "The Mountain to Mohammed" deals with the... which is another one of my stories in genetic engineering... deals with the insurance aspects of this. "Evolution" deals with the evolution of microbes in response to our keeping engineering different drugs. We find more and more of them are becoming resistant to the drugs, and it's a race to see who can stay ahead of whom.

Exactly. There are some highly resistant strains of tuberculosis and other diseases which can almost not be treated now with current antibiotics.
Yes. It's very frightening. A lot of the information in "Evolution" is actual, which again is frightening. "Dancing on Air" is the application of genetics to a specific profession, which is ballet. And I wrote that because I love ballet. And unfortunately the intersection of the audience for ballet and the audience for science fiction is vanishingly small.

I think there's three people in it. So it's necessary if you are going to write about ballet in science fiction, to write about it in a science fictional way and genetic engineering is a natural way.

Well I read that story and I knew, I have to admit, virtually nothing about ballet, maybe seen a couple of the more famous ballets on PBS and those kinds of things and it was fascinating to me... the terminology and all the different steps and things like that.
Well, thank you. If I am ever reincarnated I hope it's as a dancer. Since I'm never going to be one in this life.

Seems extremely interesting. "Margin of Error" is a very short story and in your introduction in your collection Beaker's Dozen you even said it was short under duress.
Yes. Ellen Datlow had wanted something for Omni under 2000 words because she was publishing a bunch of short stories all at once -- very short ones. And I found it an enormous challenge to write under two thousand words, in fact I failed -- the thing is two thousand and two hundred words. I simply cannot write short. I admire people who can, but it's not something that comes naturally to me.

That also has to do with genetic engineering. And here we see two sisters who have taken different paths, both of them had previously worked for a bio-engineering company... I don't want to give away too much about the plot... because it is so short, if I say much more I'll spill all the beans.
(laughs) It'll give it away.

That's right.
Women are always faced, as I was, with the conflict between family and work. And I don't want to say only women because I know a great many men now who are house husbands and who are the people who are taking care of small children. But if you go out to work and you put yourself seriously out there into a career, then you're worrying about the children at home. Someone else is raising them... unless your husband is doing it... somebody else is taking care of them. If you stay at home you worry that you are missing your place in the world, and there really doesn't seem to be a good solution to this, if there is one I never found it. And so that story deals with this issue, it deals with genetic engineering, but it also wrestles with that issue, which is a very real one for women.

And in this story we also see, which we see in a lot of your stories, two sisters in conflict. We see that in "Beggars in Spain" as well, and we also see that in several of your other stories. Do you have problems with your sister? What is this?
Some people ask me, "Do you have a sister and if so do you like her?" Yes I do have a sister and I like her a great deal.

"Flowers of Aulit Prison" also has to do with... well, I don't want to give anything away, but there are 2 sisters involved in that.
Yes. But I do like my sister a great deal. It's just that it's a natural relationship for fiction... there are really only 4 or 5 very strong personal relationships you can build fiction around. If you build them around a man-woman relationship or a man-man woman-woman relationship, you're flopping over into the area of romance, and it's very hard to avoid some of the cliches and sentimentality that goes along with the romance genre. So that leaves parent-child and siblings. And so siblings... and I'd also worked with parent-child relationships a lot... but siblings is a natural choice.

Yes, in "Dancing on Air" you have a mother and her daughter who are in conflict.
And in "Beggars in Spain" Leisha is in conflict with her father.

Yes, Absolutely. One thing I've noticed about your work, more so than other authors, is that you tend to meld together the scientific concepts as well as the relationship concepts in a heavier way than most authors do. In many cases the science is really taking the front seat. Not to say that there aren't some other great stories along those lines, but you seem like you're more drawn to the literary aspects.
Thank you. I think characters are the most important aspect of fiction... any type of fiction... and that includes science fiction. Then on the other hand I find myself, as the years go on, writing more and more... well, I don't want to call it hard SF, I think I'll borrow a term from Michael Swin and say that I write high-viscosity SF. Because again the genetic engineering revolution is so fascinating to me that I move into it, trying to get the science as right as I possibly can. But the characters to me are still to me the most important thing, because science happens to people, because if science falls in the forest and there's no one around, does it make a sound? I don't think so.

Well, it's one thing to have strong characters and likable characters, it's another to really show those characters off by showing their relationship with other characters. I think that's something you do particularly well. You don't just write science fiction, though, you also have written a fair amount of fantasy. I think early in your career... it was more fantasy than science fiction, is that right?
Yes, my first three novels were fantasy and then after that they came out science fiction and I have no explanation for this. Like so much else in my career, it just sort of happened.

So you didn't wake up one morning and say, "Well, I don't want to do fantasy anymore, I'm going to do science fiction."
Yes I did. That's happens a lot, I have no idea why.

Oh you did? Where do you get your research? Obviously you have done a great deal of research. That came through a lot of fine details in "Beggars in Spain" and some of the other stories. Do you just go to the library, do you use the Internet? How do you do your research?
Initially I went to the library. I lived at that time in a University town so I had a very fine library at my disposal. Now I do more and more of it over the Internet.

It's a wonderful resource.
One of the things that a science fiction writer who is not a scientist, as I am not, has to do, is take a small amount of information and make it look like you know an awful lot about the topic.

You have to sound as though you were presenting this information with authority.

Do you ever have your stories checked by professional scientists? Either on the Internet or through news groups or anything like that?
Well, since I married Charles Scheffield two and a half years ago, yes. He goes over my stories and corrects those things of science that have to do with physics, or with general principles. He's not particularly interested in genetic engineering so I'm on my own there. But again I have started to build up a network of people who are kind enough to answer questions for me while I'm still in the research stage.

Great. You still do write an occasional fantasy. In '95 you wrote two that we have featured on Fictionwise. "Unto the Daughters" and "Summer Wind". Can you say a few words about those?
Both of them are retellings of old stories. One of them was done for Ellen Datlow's fantasy series of fairy tale retellings. That was "Summer Wind," and it's a version of "Sleeping Beauty". The other one is a version of the Genesis story. And I think there is a lot of value in retellings if they are genuinely different.

Well these are certainly genuinely different. I can attest to that!
(laughs) The value lies in that these stories wouldn't have lasted if they didn't touch something very deep in the human mind. And so when we rework them we're taking something that already has a great deal of resonance and we're trying to present it in a way that takes into account the truth of our particular time. It's a great deal of fun to do that.

Yes. So you write primarily science fiction but occaisonally, when prompted by... were those stories asked for specifically asked for by those editors?
Yes, both of them were commissioned.

Do you do a lot of commissioned work like that?
No. I find it difficult to write to a theme usually. If a theme is very broad like retell a fairy tale, that's not hard, but if it becomes too specific I find that I just can't seem to get the juices flowing. I have to write stories I care about.

Exactly. Well, it certainly comes through in the writing that you care about these themes and these topics. One thing that's a little different about how you handle genetic issues compared to some of the other authors out there is that you always seem to have a hopeful slant on the story. Some critics have said that you seem to be more of a humanist even though some characters in your stories do bad things sometimes. What comes across is a hopefulness about humanity. Where as, I'm contrasting this with the kind of genetic engineering you see in cyberpunk stories, and those type of stories.
Well, compared to cyberpunk stories anybody would look hopeful!

Yeah, well, yes that's very true, they are very grim.
That's interesting you should say that, Steve, because I've actually been accused of being very grim myself. Because I almost never have a universally happy ending.

Yes, but the endings always hold out hope for the future, I mean the ending in "Beggars in Spain" isn't exactly perfectly happy either but it is extremely hopeful.
Well, it's my experience that no situation in life... well I don't want to say no... but very few are completely bad. Some people gain, some people lose, that's just the way life is. And it seems to me that fiction has to reflect that so that some characters come out ahead and some characters come out behind. Rather than the universally happy ending where everybody gets everything that they want. I don't know what that world is like or where it is. I don't live there.

So it's a realistic view. It's based more on reality. And yet... I don't know, there's something about... I would agree with you that they're not totally upbeat endings, there's still that basic idea that people generally are good. Is that something you would agree with?
Actually no.

Well, ok ... (laughs)
Neither do I think people are generally bad. I think people are generally a very ambiguous mix. What I don't think that there are very any genuinely evil people. Yes there are some. Not nearly as many as populate most fiction. Most people, when they make mistakes, make them out of stupidity or short-sightedness or selfishness, but not genuine evil. That's why I almost never have real "dyed-in-the-wool" villains.

Sure. And even the father in "Beggars in Spain" is not exactly evil. He's very high-strung and 'pressing-on' and very driven.
He's driven but I didn't find him evil at all. I think in many ways he's admirable.

His politics are not mine.

Yes, and the way he treats Alice isn't exactly great either! But besides that... Well I think our time is almost up. I appreciate you spending some time with us here on Fictionwise. And I appreciate you giving us some stories to put up on the air, and I hope we can bring a whole new market to your work.
Well, thank you. I hope so too!

Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2000 by Steve Pendergrast,

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