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A Conversation With Mary Soon Lee
An interview with Trent Walters
February 2002

© Mary Soon Lee
Mary Soon Lee
Mary Soon Lee
Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, UK. She attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge University where she earned a M.A. in mathematics and a diploma in computer science and met her husband, Andrew Moore. After two years working as a computer consultant, she returned to Cranfield University for a M.Sc. in astronautics and space engineering. In November 1990, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, staying for 3 years before moving to Pittsburgh. Winter Shadows and Other Tales is her first book.

Mary Soon Lee Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Winter Shadows and Other Tales
Dark Regions Press

Winter Shadows and Other Tales
a poem by Mary Soon Lee

I'm used to freak kids,
Conceived in a test-tube,
Revised in a petri dish,
For parents who believe
Four arms are better than two,
Or that red eyes
Will be fashionable
Any day now.

There are always people
Who make poor choices.
But that's no reason
To withdraw my support
For the 30th amendment:
Free to shape
Our children, as we are free
To shape ourselves.

So this Halloween
I took it in my stride
When they knocked at the door:
Draculas and ghouls --
Translucent skin and teeth
As long as fingers,
Wolf boys flaunting their fur,
And swollen-headed brain girls.

But then she tottered up my steps,
Maybe five years old.
A pumpkin-kid, bright orange,
Begging for candy,
Her head sunk in a globular body,
A novelty her parents ordered
For some long-forgotten costume party.

I thought she might be lost.
"No," she said, "I want to explore."
Over a fistful of candy,
I pried the tale from her,
How she hated
People laughing at her,
Every other day of the year.

This poem first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in November 2000

In your introduction, you write that "I never meant to be a writer.... the Immigration and Naturalization Service turned me into a writer: In the delay before my work permit arrived, I had nothing to occupy my time, so I wrote fiction as a diversion." Why didn't you want to be a writer? Why the change of heart? How has your relatively late realization affected your writing? How long did it take before your first sale? What did you have to learn (or what methodology did you use) to bridge the gap between amateur to professional?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a scientist, and then as a teenager I concentrated on mathematics. In England, schooling is tightly focused. By the time I was sixteen, I was taking only mathematics and science classes. For my undergraduate degree, I took only mathematics classes. So at that stage I didn't even consider switching to something more artistic. When I unexpectedly found that I had time on my hands (thanks to the INS), I decided to write for amusement -- and only then discovered that I enjoyed writing very much. If I had planned to be a writer, I would have tried to take a broader range of classes -- including at least one that covered the rules of punctuation...

In 1991, when I started writing, I worked on TV scripts, none of which sold, but which still helped me learn how to tell stories and write dialogue. In 1992, I started submitting short stories, and that summer I made my first sale to a small press magazine called Strange Days. In 1993, I made my first professional sale to Aboriginal Science Fiction, and the story they bought was only the second one that I had marketed (it had been rejected several times). I also took a weekly evening class on writing in Fall 1991, which taught me essentials such as standard manuscript format, and I joined a writers' workshop, which I found very helpful.

What do you think distinguishes your earlier attempts at stories from the sale to Aboriginal? Were there any story elements especially difficult to work through? In what way did you find the workshop helpful?
The story that I sold to Aboriginal Science Fiction was the fourth one I wrote, although I had previously written several TV scripts. My first three short stories were bad, and I am glad that none of them saw print! The Aboriginal story turned out better, and I am still fond of it, but it contains at least one distinctly awkward section. I found it hard to learn how to plot stories gracefully. The workshop helped by telling me which scenes worked and which didn't, and whether my stories came to a satisfactory conclusion. In addition, the workshop provided me with support and companionship from other writers, an intangible but very real benefit, and one that I have been lucky enough to find again in my current workshop, the Pittsburgh Worldwrights. I learned another very valuable lesson when Charles Ryan accepted my story for Aboriginal, but asked me to tighten it. I shortened the story by a tenth without losing any of the content, almost entirely by deleting unnecessary words and phrases.

What kinds of writers have influenced you and how? Which contemporary authors do you enjoy reading?
I read extensively when I was growing up, and I think all the books I read affected me. Books and authors that I read and re-read as a child include The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, Jane Austen, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert A. Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, and many more. My favorite contemporary fantasy and science fiction authors include Ursula K. Le Guin, Jack McDevitt, and Guy Gavriel Kay. There are many other contemporary authors who have written work that I loved, some at novel length and some in short stories, including Catherine Asaro, John Barnes, David Brin, Orson Scott Card, Kara Dalkey, David Feintuch, Molly Gloss, Ian MacLeod, Geoffrey Landis, Nancy Kress, Ellen Kushner, Maureen McHugh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Mary Doria Russell, Geoff Ryman, Sean Stewart, Connie Willis, and Laurel Winter. Probably my favorite near-contemporary author outside the field of speculative fiction is Patrick O'Brian.

How do you instill such compassion and caring into the reader about your characters? Must characters come first?
I am not sure, except that I get caught up in the stories and characters as I write. The characters are the most important part of a story to me, but they are not always the part that first comes to my mind -- often the what-if idea of a strange world or a strange twist on our own world is the seed for a story.

How do you transition the story from the what-if to the character?
Sometimes I note down a what-if idea in a file and only return to it months, even years, later, when I find another idea or a character that might combine well with the original idea. Other times I take the idea and play with it, jotting down words or related ideas, thinking of people that the what-if idea might affect. This produces very messy pieces of paper, covered with arrows and lists and cryptic notes. And sometimes I launch into a story without knowing much about the characters, though that often results in my having to start afresh once I have a better feeling for the tale.

Do you deliberately set about mining myths, legends and fairy tales or do they stumble upon you? What attraction draws you to retelling fairy tales? What powers and weaknesses do they bestow upon their writer?
Initially I was resistant to this. Dawn Albright, a member of the first writers' workshop that I joined, suggested that I try retelling a fairy tale as an exercise, and I foolishly failed to do so. But a couple of years and a move from Boston to Pittsburgh later, I took her advice and set out to rewrite "Beauty and the Beast," which led to the story "Monstrosity." Since then I have written half a dozen other such tales (out of about a hundred short stories), mostly because I wanted to try adding a new perspective on an old tale. When this is done well -- for instance in Ursula K. Le Guin's marvelous story "The Poacher," which revisits the Sleeping Beauty tale -- then the writer can get a great deal of added force from the way the new story contrasts and illuminates the old story. When it is done less well, the story can be just derivative.

Why do you think certain SF writers "fear" the short short? Why aren't you afraid?
I think there are writers who find it difficult, and hence perhaps frightening, to write short stories let alone short-shorts. But I suspect that another factor is the economics of it all. Even at 20 cents a word, a short-short won't earn much money, yet the marketing effort is the same as for a longer story. I enjoy reading short-shorts and I think that's why I still write them, even though I do find it hard to compress setting, character, and plot into a very short tale (and I don't always manage it!)

You're one of small presses' darlings: you've published in the major magazines yet continue to publish in the small press even when other professional writers would refuse. Why?
There are several reasons for this. One reason is that I admire such small press magazines as On Spec (which now pays pro-rates, but didn't for a long time), Talebones, and Tales of the Unanticipated. Another reason is that some of my favorite short stories were rejected by many of the major markets, and I wanted to find a home for them. (The flip-side of this is that a couple of stories I don't personally care for have sold to major markets -- but I shall not disclose which stories those are!) Another reason is that occasionally an editor will solicit a story from me, and that makes me much more inclined to submit to their magazine.

Titles like "Conversation Pieces" work in multiple ways. How do you come up with titles? Do they occur to you first or at the end or...?
Nearly always the title is the last part of the story that I write. After I've finished the first draft, I spend a while jotting down possible titles and title words on a sheet of paper, trying not to censor them as I go along. About half the time this leads to a title, and the other half of the time I have to repeat the process. On rare but happy occasions, the title occurs to me while I am writing the story, and on one particularly happy occasion the title occurred to me before I wrote the story.

Do you find speculative fiction themes have real world applications? Take "Monstrosity" and "Spell Night" where the characters' enchantments are not easily and simply broken as they are in sugar-coated fairy tales -- how would you apply this predicament? accepting one's lot, one's turn of fortune for the worse? Is this fed by a desire to overturn the implausibly happy endings of the sugar-coated or another process entirely?
I rarely consider the connection to the real world as I write. Ideally, I'd like my stories to be true to themselves, rather than being vehicles for one particular moral or message. That said, I am sure that my own outlook colors my fiction. In the case of "Monstrosity," which began as a writing exercise, I did consciously twist the ending away from the familiar one in "Beauty and the Beast" so that I could experiment with plot.

Both Hellia, "The Hollow Dancer," and the narrator of "Seeing Deeper" struggle with their faith in the supernatural. Is this an important theme to you? Some consider the supernatural at odds with the reasoning of science. How does this fit in or clash with your science fiction doppelganger? Do you have separate writing selves, do the two not clash, or is your aim only to entertain, letting the story convey it's own system of beliefs?
This is an important theme to me. Although I don't believe in God, religion is a major influence on people's lives, and many of my friends and relatives are religious. I don't consider that faith in general is incompatible with science, although certain religious beliefs do clash with science. I would welcome reading more fantasy, and especially more science fiction, which showed admirable characters that did have religious convictions. As far as writing science fiction versus fantasy, I feel like the same person when I write in either mode. In both cases, I try to make the story consistent with the world I am writing about, whether that is our own world or a world I am creating, which may contain gods and other supernatural elements.

A certain morality underpins tales like "The Fall of the Kingdom" and "Roadside Stop," among others. While characters have valid reasons to feel disgruntled, they take a step too far toward their own demise. Does this morality seep through intentionally? Are moral tales a necessity?
Although I don't set out to preach a particular moral when I write a story (with one exception to date), I am sure that my own idea of what is right and wrong leaks into my fiction. While stories don't have to contain a moral, I think this inadvertent leakage of the author's views is widespread and hard to prevent.

Have you attempted the novel form? If so, what kinds of problems have you encountered in the transition? If not, why not?
No, I haven't yet tried writing a novel. I can write short stories while still spending most of my time looking after my son, who is now nearly three years old. When my son goes to kindergarten, I probably will try a novel, and I am already nervous about the transition!

What else can we expect to see from you in the future?
I have a forthcoming science fiction collection, Ebb Tide and Other Tales, due out from Dark Regions Press in Spring/Summer 2002, plus short stories forthcoming from Interzone, Adventures of Sword & Sorcery Magazine, Sword & Sorceress 20, and others. And hopefully one of these years there will be a novel. Thanks very much for your questions.

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared in The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, and The Zone among others. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine he can be seen coaching the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach, or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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