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A Conversation With Julie E. Czerneda
An interview with Kim Fawcett
October 2000

© Roger Czerneda
Julie Czerneda
Julie E. Czerneda
Julie Czerneda is a Canadian science fiction writer who lives at the edge of a forest in Orillia, Ontario, with her husband and two children. A former researcher in animal communication, she has also written non-fiction that ranges from biology texts to the use of science fiction in developing literacy.

Julie E. Czerneda Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Thousand Words For Stranger
SF Site Review: Ties of Power
SF Site Review: No Limits/Packing Fraction
SF Site Excerpt: Beholder's Eye interview
CBC interview with Julie Czerneda and Robert Sawyer

Ties of Power

Art: Luis Royo
Beholder's Eye
A Thousand Words
No Limits
Packing Fraction

What has been your biggest challenge in becoming a full-time SF writer?
Learning what I needed to do after writing the book -- and then having the patience to do it. You see, I didn't know anything about fiction publishing when I started out, so the challenge was teaching myself about the business side. If I'd known then about science fiction conventions -- or been on the Internet -- that might not have been such an uphill climb. Once I did meet people who could talk to me about who published what, what was involved, all those things, then it was a case of being very patient. Publishing is definitely hurry up and wait. Fortunately, I was busy writing science non-fiction which made the waiting part a little easier.

How has your science/educational writing background influenced your fiction writing?
My passion for science is the source of many things I put in my fiction and explore through storytelling -- especially biology, but other areas as well. That's the obvious influence. I suppose the way I write has been affected by years of trying express concepts as clearly as possible, and to avoid confusion or ambiguity. While it's not exactly an influence, I do find that everything I learned as an editor and author previously has been incredibly helpful. I came into a career writing fiction accustomed to being edited, to understanding the value of revising, and with a healthy respect for deadlines. Also, I knew how to make books, so I knew exactly which stages of the process were my responsibility. The only thing so far that hasn't been particularly important has been keeping to a page count. I still have trouble conceiving that I can write as many pages as the story requires. I'm used to being very conscious of a maximum number of words. My editor still teases me about that.

You tend to write series -- does this reflect a personal preference, or more of a publisher preference?
It hasn't been a preference so much as a consequence. I guess I'd better explain that. By the time I sold my first book to DAW, I had a drawer filled with different manuscripts and ideas. None of them were series and I'd given no thought at all to creating one. After all, until I sold a book, it seemed a little presumptuous to imagine a stack.

Then, my first book, A Thousand Words For Stranger, was published and did amazingly well. Almost immediately, readers wanted to know what happened next. So did my editor. I blinked in astonishment and offered an unrelated story, Beholder's Eye, instead. Again, it did well and readers wanted more about the main character, Esen. I was seeing a pattern.

So for my third book, my editor and I talked about a sequel. I already had something in mind, since, when I looked back at Thousand, I knew I'd dealt with the two protagonists but left the consequences of their actions to the imaginations of readers. Those consequences were interesting to me as well, so I was happy to write more.

Meanwhile, I had such fun writing about Esen, I was eager to keep going with her. Suddenly Changing Vision is out. So as a consequence of basically having a lot of fun and filling in what I hadn't put in my first books, I wound up with two ongoing series, The Trade Pact and Web Shifters. DAW has bought more books in each. Who knew?

There will be books outside either series. For one thing, I still have that drawer filled with ideas. So next out from me will be a standalone SF novel. This may become a trend. As I've discussed the future with my editor, it looks likely that I'll be doing a series title, then something new, then perhaps another series title, and so on -- as long as I'm enjoying it and so are readers. I apologize ahead of time for leapfrogging from one to the other, but I find it keeps me excited to think about new places and stories, while being able to revisit old favourites occasionally.

What have you learned about SF and writing in general from your work as an anthologist?
The variety of style and content that fits within SF is simply incredible -- and is a credit to the genre as a whole. What have I learned about writing in general? I have a long way to go! So much talent and such ideas. I'm quite in awe. I've also learned I hate rejecting stories, so I'll keep making sure I only invite as many submissions as I have spaces.

Your stories are all set in the far future; why is that? Near future SF has been extremely popular over the past few years; do you think the popularity of your novels marks a change in that trend?
To be completely accurate, I've written some near future SF, but just as short fiction. Those stories are straightforward, hard SF, each exploring a particular scientific concept and its consequence. Those are very satisfying to write. However...

First and foremost, I'm a sense of wonder person. Writing about the far future lets me rip loose from the here and now in every way I want to imagine. I can have settings and aliens that let me pour out my own curiosity about what might be. In a real sense, my novels are where I play. As you can probably tell, it didn't actually occur to me which type of SF was more popular. If anything, I started writing because I couldn't find enough of what I wanted to read. Does the popularity of my novels mark a change? I can't say if it's a change so much as that I suspect there are other readers out there who haven't lost their sense of wonder either, and have been looking for science fiction that gives them the future through that lens.

You're known as a science fiction writer, but some of your short stories are fantasy. Do you intend any novel-length fantasy in the near future? What are the differences for you?
Fantasy's harder. I have a great deal of respect for those who write it! You need such intricate, careful worldbuilding and it involves quite different components than science fictional ones. The short stories were by invitation. Rather than explain to the anthologist that I'd never written fantasy before, I took them on as a challenge. They were fun to do, but I'll confess to having several other writers read them first, to make sure they didn't come across as SF in disguise. Would I do a novel-length fantasy? I'd like to try some day, primarily because I love how certain fantasy authors use language so richly. It's an indulgence you don't usually put into science fiction and I'd like to see if I could do it. It will be a while, I suspect, since I've quite a few SF projects underway.

You put a lot of energy into promoting science and SF in the education system, through workshops and particularly through two of your latest books, Packing Fraction and No Limits: Developing Scientific Literacy Using Science Fiction. What is the importance of introducing elementary and secondary schoolchildren to SF?
When I was in school, SF was this amazing discovery I made on my own, a wonder-filled explosion of ideas hidden in obscure parts of the library. When I grew up, and became a biologist, SF was still there, only I was using it to explore ideas of my own -- many based on the science I was doing each day. It made perfect sense to me, since creativity and imagination are fundamental tools in research. Still, all this was pretty much on my own.

Then I began writing science textbooks and other resources for classrooms. As you mentioned, I'd go into classrooms to do workshops on a variety of things, including what scientists were like. I used examples from SF literature as well as media SF to draw out students' preconceptions and ideas. Soon, I was delivering entire topics using SF, and it worked wonderfully. It didn't matter if the kids came into the classroom as SF readers or not -- the material has suffused our popular culture to the point where I always had some way of using SF to get their attention and focusing it where I wanted.

To me, the importance of introducing students to SF became not so much about its versatility, but how students' imaginations open up as they are exposed to the way science fiction explores ideas. To me, speculation and critical thinking about science are automatic. But many young people never think about science as a human activity, full of creativity and imagination, as well as consequences. They are facing a subject that can seem all-knowing and permanent, but science is neither. I've found SF readers to have minds supremely capable of absorbing change and seeing its potential -- good or bad. While I won't claim to have turned entire classrooms into such readers, I will say that after using SF with kids, their minds are much more flexible and they aren't afraid to challenge concepts. What more could you want?

Your website includes a quote from the National Education Standards. This quote defines scientific literacy as "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity." Can you explain the relationship between science, literacy, and culture? Is scientific literacy an issue among today's readers, as well as the readers of tomorrow?
The relationship is one of comprehension. In our present culture, we're bombarded daily, from all possible sources, with new scientific information about everything from our health to the universe. This information is more than just a dump of discoveries -- in many cases, it involves change and technologies moving into our lives, altering how we live now, not in the future. No one, not even a scientist trained in multiple disciplines, can hope to keep up and know all that is necessary about these changes. Fortunately, you don't need to. A scientifically literate person understands what science is -- and is not. That person will consider the source and context of any information. That person will ask questions and look further before making a decision. Is it an issue today? Absolutely. Is it an issue for readers of tomorrow? I believe even more so, since the pace of discovery and change, the sheer accumulation and access of knowledge, is accelerating. I'm fond of the comparison that in our changing culture, science fiction readers (and writers) are the ones who will continue to recognize the landscape.

Do you have specific goals when you're writing a book -- issues you want to tackle?
I start with a central concept -- a "what if?" -- that interests me. For the Trade Pact, it's directed evolution -- how would an intelligent species behave if they were able to increase a particular ability in future generations, and what would happen when that ability reached its maximum? In the Web Shifters, it's a collection of different speculations, but most deal with what it would be like to be biologically immortal. If a concept is worth a story, there must be an issue or problem involved -- so I begin to contemplate what would happen because of this evolutionary problem or what it would be like trying to live as an immortal among shorter-lived species. Usually I know pretty quickly if something worth pursuing has grabbed my attention. Did I mention the drawer?

In a broader sense, the issues that interest me most deal with biology and intelligence. I'm fascinated by the interactions between species on every level. Let's just say I don't see myself becoming bored any time soon.

What's next?
I'm finishing up my fifth novel, In The Company Of Others, coming from DAW in June 2001. It's the standalone I mentioned, about contamination of a terraforming project by an alien pest and the consequence to waiting settlers. I'm very excited about it. I have three anthologies coming out in the spring as well, namely a series from Trifolium Books called Tales From The Wonder Zone. They continue my efforts to produce SF for younger readers. I'm co-authoring a teacher's guide for those books called Science From The Wonder Zone, with Annette Griessman, again spring 2001. Hmmm. This winter I'm writing the next Trade Pact book, To Trade The Stars. After that? Probably Hidden In Sight, the next Esen adventure. Once those are in the can, what's next? I can't tell you details yet, but I'm reasonably confident there's more.

My drawer is still pretty full.

Copyright © 2000 by Kim Fawcett

Kim Fawcett is a professional writer who finances her SF/F habit with contract work in the Ottawa high-tech industry. She aspires to expertise in a variety of areas, including photography, sketching, gourmet cooking, fencing, and herbalism. Once a year she suffers a bout of temporary insanity and writes a novel in three days.

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