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A Conversation With Karin Lowachee
An interview with Alexander von Thorn
July 2002

© MM, Johann & Joanne LaRose
Ghetto Lamp Photography
Karin Lowachee
Karin Lowachee
Karin Lowachee's family moved from Guyana, South America to near Toronto, Ontario when she was about 2 years old. After university, she tried various jobs unrelated to writing, before being rejected from the graduate writing program at the University of British Columbia. Offered the chance, she went to Rankin Inlet on the west coast of Hudson Bay where she spent 9 months. Her novel, Warchild, won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest.

Karin Lowachee Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Warchild
Article: The Backburner Book
SF Site Excerpt: Warchild

Art: Matt Stawicki

I met Karin Lowachee in Oakville, outside a Starbucks attached to an Indigo. I knew her slightly in social circles; her sister is the layout editor of The Voyageur, the newsletter of the IDIC fan club. Warchild was her first novel, and she was eager to talk about her work.

Let me jump right in. Your web site has photos of you at Rankin Inlet. How did your experience there influence your writing?

I almost wish that I went up there before I'd written Warchild. The feelings of displacement and other things I'd felt up there, in the first couple of weeks, would have been really good research for the book. It was the first time that I'd lived in such a different environment than what I'd grown up with. It was a shock to me; I knew I might feel a little bit displaced, but actually being up there, the first thing I noticed was there were no trees. It seems frivolous that something as cosmetic would affect you. But after growing up in Ontario, flying into Rankin Inlet and the fact that there were no trees, it really hit me. The next thing was the barrenness of the landscape. We came in on an evening, and the very next day we went out "on the land", as they say, meaning outside of the town. You could walk out of town in five minutes. There was no snow at the time, but the tundra was something else. I was in awe of it.

The only way in and out is by a plane, so that feeling of loneliness was really profound for me. But I got a job a week later, so I didn't have a lot of time to dwell on being isolated. It was really interesting to me, the lack of distraction up there. There's not all of this, movie theatres and coffee shops and things, so you have to occupy yourself. You have the Internet and things, but once the weather is really bad, you can't go outside. Just not really being able to get in a car and visit friends, that was fascinating to me, that's when I started doing things I hadn't done before: going ice fishing, building igloos, just going out on the land. I'm not really outdoorsy when I'm down here, but up there, it's a whole different thing. Winter is really winter, it's pretty incredible. And being in a different culture, socially, is eye-opening. It was just a great experience from beginning to end.

I thought you had captured the sense of separation in your book, So I wonder if writing the book helped you understand the experience of being up there?
Yes, actually it did, it helped me understand more of what Joss was going through. I wrote it, even though I hadn't necessarily gone through that exact experience, because his feelings of isolation and loneliness are something that people feel, regardless of whether they're amongst friends, so that just kind of went into the book. I took the core emotion and adapted it to his situation. But yes, there are some very specific things of being in a different culture and being surrounded by a different language, and all of that was almost like backwards research. Though I was up there when I did my revisions, and that helped.

You're the second consecutive Caribbean-born Toronto author to win the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. Do you want to comment about that trend?
That's just a big coincidence. Betsy Mitchell was surprised about that too. I was aware of the first context, and then Nalo's book came out. I looked at it, going, "Oh, she's from where I'm from," partly. And I thought, this book sounds really interesting, like something I would have written if I'd thought of it. It's really neat that two Toronto writers, two Canadians, two women did this, and it's just a coincidence that we're both sort of from the same background. But I mean our books are so completely different.

How did your culture origins contribute to your writing?
I came to Canada when I was two. It's not so much being surrounded by the culture all the time. I get it visiting with the family, grandparents and that kind of thing. Maybe a lot of it is embedded in my mind. I did pretty much grow up Canadian, whatever that means, which is a sense of multi-culturalism. Going through school, I was very much aware that I wasn't like the easy way you think of being Canadian, playing hockey, I wasn't exactly a part of that. I've always had a sense of being outside a situation and observing. Even when I'm going out with friends, I'm very aware of differences in people, and similarities as well. Some of that probably got into the book in Joss's experience, in the way that he was apart from people. But for actual specific cultural things, I wasn't consciously aware of any.

You can't point to any one thing that you might have drawn on?
No. It's not all just one culture that surrounds us. I guess that got in there, because his experience is not just of an alien culture, but of different cultures within the wider culture of space. The station culture, the ship culture, all of that, and there being differences between them, and his being on the outside and not quite on the inside of either.

Okay. You've got long sections of martial arts training in your novel. What martial arts have you personally studied?
[laughing...] I wouldn't really call it studying. When I was little I used to do jujitsu. But I've always been interested in martial arts, either the movie aspect, the Bruce Lee-Jackie Chan aspect, and also the more meditative aspect of where those arts come from and why they developed. So I wrote from a lot of studies from books, more than actual practical studies. I got them vetted by a friend who is a martial artist, to try and catch some of my foibles.

That blows my related question. I can only say that you write in a very convincing way.
That's what writers do, I guess.

I really found it interesting that you chose to make humanity the main villain in Warchild. Why did you set the story that way?
Well, I didn't set it up specifically, in the sense that they're obviously the bad guys. The narrative is slanted because, for most of Joss's childhood, he's raised by people for whom it's in their best interest to slant things to their ends. If he'd been raised on EarthHub for most of his adolescence, his opinion might be different.

But you picked him as a point-of-view character.
Yes, I did. Maybe it was my response to not wanting the aliens to be just the obvious villains, as they are in a lot of books. I didn't want one to be completely good and one completely bad, and I don't think they are. There's good things about the human side that you see on an individual level, and there's also good and bad things on the aliens or their sympathizers' side. The sympathizers are raised alien but they are human. So I wanted it to be more grey, as opposed to being one villain and then another. I prefer to deal in grey areas rather than black and white.

I'm going to ask a loaded question then. Is your perspective on the conflict in your book influenced as a result of growing up Canadian, in particular next to the United States?
The direct inspiration for the war was the European colonization of the United States. That's where it all sprang from years ago, when I started working on the background of this book. That was a dominance of a "technologically superior" culture that came to a culture that wasn't as technologically superior. Basically what the humans did was along the same lines of what the Europeans did. You take what you want and dictate to the other cultures. That was a conscious influence.

On your web site, you have an online journal that refers to pieces of music that you listen to when you're writing. I want to know how you use music as a muse.
Music is a muse for me. I usually write with it on. Certain types of music will help the mood of a scene. For instance, in fight scenes, I usually play harder music. The lyrics and vocalists have a lot to do with mood as well. The lyrics go with a theme, or the psychology the characters are going through at the time. Music really does influence me, and I don't think I'm alone in that as a writer. I pull a lot of different varieties of music, depending on what scene I'm on or who I'm dealing with. For Joss, it was anything from new metal or rock guitar music to ballads or electronic music.

I know some people use it for background music, but you're obviously choosing it in some conscious way. Do you find links between your writing and music? What I mean by that is, do you feel you write in a way that has a rhythm or a tone influenced by music?
I understand what you're asking. I do try to have some sort of rhythm, or flow, that can be equated to music. In the gauntlet scene where Joss is being chased, I was conscious of developing a rhythm, for it to come across as something almost as if the reader can hear the music in the back of their head, if they wanted to, the kind of music that would be playing during that scene. I write cinematically, in the sense that when I write, I have a movie in my mind that's complete with sound and film shots, different pans and closeups. So I try and convey that in my writing, whether it's obvious or not. It's usually there to help mood and pace. So yes, I do try and do that with my writing, very much so.

You wrote the first part of Warchild in the second person. Did you have any particular challenges writing in this mode?
No, that came very easily. I didn't consciously plan to have it in the second person. It's not like I got up one day and said, "I'm going to try this because it's unusual," and have people tell you not to do it so that you do it. That wasn't the case. It was just that that's what the voice came as on the very first paragraph. So then I have to follow through with it.

I had no intention of writing the entire book in second person, I knew early that would end when he escaped Falcone, and the story would switch to an "I" point of view when he got with Niko. The only conscious thing about it was that I knew it wouldn't be for the entire book. So I didn't have any particular problems with it, which I almost was suspicious of, because it's supposedly a very difficult point of view to maintain.

Back in the 80s, writing in the second person was fashionable for a while, with Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney and people like that. But I have to really commend you, because I think you used it successfully, which is hard to do.
Thank you.

[Even in transcribing this interview, the interviewer observed how the author would lapse into second person and present tense when describing a scene or situation at times.]

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a sequel. I'd originally planned this series in three books, from three very different points of view, to cover the overall theme. I wanted to view the history of the peace process that began at the end of Warchild, as a historical link for the three books. But the voices in the three books would be very separate. The next book isn't from Joss's point of view, it's from another character's, and the third one will be from another character's still.

None of the viewpoint characters are presidents or captains or generals. I want to keep it from a smaller point of view, from someone you wouldn't necessarily hear from when all these great events are going on. That was my intention from the get-go.

Will we see Joss again?
Yes! He's definitely going to be in it. That's the fun part, being able to write him a different perspective. It's fun for me, never mind readers, to be able to see that.

Do you have any long-term plans, once you are done with this trilogy, of going in any new directions?
Yes. I've always written fantasy, and I've always been interested in genres that aren't necessarily strictly science fiction or fantasy. I like horror, I like mixes of horror with fantasy or science fiction, and I like shifts of historical fantasy, so I'm definitely not limiting myself. Military SF just happens to be the genre that I wrote first, or got published first. But it's not necessarily going to be the thing that I'm going to be writing five or ten years from now.

Okay. I know it's early to be asking about projects that are not your current deadline.
Well, I have all these ideas in my head, so it's just a matter of picking one.

Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2002 Alexander von Thorn

Alexander von Thorn is actively involved in many aspects of science fiction fandom. He is deputy head of programming for Torcon III, the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, and vice-chair of the Seattle in '05 bid for the North American Science Fiction Convention. He is nominated for the 2002 Aurora Award, the Canadian science fiction awards, for fan writing. In his day job he is a manager of technical support at WorldCom, a global data communications organization. He is also a member of the Ink*Specs writing circle in Toronto and is an avid watcher of (digitally enhanced) bad television.

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