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Dividing The Rewards:
An Interview with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman

Interview by David Mathew
Ellen Kushner
Ellen Kushner
Ellen Kushner was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. She attended Bryn Mawr College and graduated from Barnard College. After graduating, she found a job in publishing at Ace Books as a fantasy editor, and then went on to edit fiction at Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster. Her first novel was Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners followed by Thomas the Rhymer which won the Mythopoeic Award and the World Fantasy Award. She is the editor of two anthologies, Basilisk and The Horns of Elfand, co-edited with Don Keller and Delia Sherman. She has taught writing at the Clarion and Odyssey workshops. The rest of the world knows her better as a personality on public radio as the host of Sound & Spirit, a musical exploration of world myth, spirituality and the human experience.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Horn of Elfland
Sound & Spirit at WGBH
Ellen Kushner Bibliography

Delia Sherman
Delia Sherman was born in Tokyo, Japan, and brought up in Manhattan. At Brown University she earned a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies in 1981, and at Boston University and Northeastern she taught Freshman Composition and Fantasy as Literature. Her first novel, Through a Brazen Mirror, was published as one of the Ace Fantasy Specials. Her second novel, The Porcelain Dove, was based on French folklore and history. She was nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer of 1990, and won the Mythopoeic Award for Best Novel of the Year for The Porcelain Dove. In 1995, she become a Contributing Editor for Tor Books and teaches SF and Fantasy writing at Odyssey and at Clarion.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Essential Bordertown: A Traveller's Guide to the Edge of Faerie
SF Site Review: Through A Brazen Mirror
Circlet Press

The Horns of Elfland

Art: Jim Carroll
The Essential Bordertown
Through A Brazen Mirror
Porcelain Dove
The American fantasy writers Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman are now writing and editing as a partnership. Both have published two solo novels, Kushner being the author of the World Fantasy Award-winning Thomas the Rhymer; and Sherman has completed a third -- a novel for young adults. But for the time being, much of their creative energy is also being directed to shared fiction. I interviewed them individually and then together...

I. Ellen Kushner
"I'd always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little girl," Ellen Kushner said, "because I thought books were the most wonderful thing on earth, and therefore to write books would be singing in the heavenly choir. I went to what we call college and you call university, and about two months before graduation I thought: Oh my God, what am I going to do? I tried to give myself a good liberal arts education. I was interested in theatre, I was interested in Medieval literature -- but I never studied the novel. So when I sat down to write one, I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing. What does a writer do? Well, they become waitresses, but I couldn't do that because I'm too clumsy and I'm too rude. When I don't like people, they know it. Everyone said, you're in New York City now; why don't you go into publishing? My writing teacher in college had said, editors are the enemy; they're out to destroy everything you do. But I couldn't figure out anything else to do. So I thought I'll go and learn the tricks of the enemy! I got a job as an assistant, and it was a right-place-at-the-right-time thing: I knew a lot about fantasy, and they needed someone who knew about fantasy, and I got promoted very quickly. I went to Pocket Books as a fantasy editor. I hated every minute of it; I just wanted to write. Eventually I quit to write my first novel. Now of course it's like the doctor who goes in to have an operation: I know everything that can possibly go wrong!"

The first novel took a long time to write. "I'm an endless procrastinator. I had set myself a very ambitious project, and I only realised after I'd done it how ambitious it was. So while I was writing Swordspoint, I did a lot of different things. I freelanced -- for publishing. I wrote five Choose Your Own Adventure books: Number 56, 47... and I can't remember all of them. They paid awfully well at the time. It was the height of the boom; they were desperate for material. I just happened to hook up with one of the originators. So they supported me during the writing of my first two novels."

Kushner's early influences were "C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, and Tolkien of course. I was of the generation that grew up reading the Lyn Carter Unicorn series." There was little doubt in her mind that when she came to write a novel it was going to be a fantasy novel. But... "I hate saying I write fantasy. Fantasy is now a genre, most of which I find boring and irritating. I hate saying 'I write fantasy' because people immediately think I write a cross between Star Wars and Elf-o-Rama-Imitation-Tolkien-Number-47. I hate saying this because it sounds so snotty, but sometimes I say I write Literary Fantasy." Snotty or not, it's an apt description. Kushner talked a little bit about her first novel.

"For Swordspoint I had two characters in mind. One of them was an illiterate but very smart swordsman, and the other was a self-destructive renegade scholar. They lived together in an underworld setting. I wrote short stories about them, but people who read them said that they were really characters for a novel. I tried for almost a year to take the short stories and weave them into a novel. I slowly realised that was not on; I had to create a new plot for them. And plot is not my forte. I learned a lot.

"It was published in 1987. It was a real critical success and it's still in print. Eleven years after publication! It's never made a huge amount of money... but it was claimed as a flagship for what one critic called Fantasy of Manners, which got shortened to Mannerpunk. It's a book in which there's virtually no magic; it's urban; and it has a lot to do with manners. A lot of the drama is all about... manners! The way people treat each other. And a lot of books like that started coming out, and mine just happened to be the first one published. But it was very clear they weren't influenced by mine, because they would come out six months or a year later. So you know they weren't being written at that time. I caught the beginning of a wave. A lot of these books were written by women who shared a common set of influences, as one critic put it, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to Jane Austen. Very generational.

"All my friends worked in publishing; everyone knew I'd quit a promising job to write this novel. My terror was that someone would say, 'It took you how long to write that?' I was very happy when it was a critical success, and I hadn't expected it to be at all. It took a long time to sell it because it was so non-traditional. We couldn't sell it as a fantasy novel because it was too literary, and all the literary people said it was too fantasy. It was published in Britain first -- by the publisher I would have wanted to be published with."

Thomas the Rhymer was published three years after Swordspoint...

"Well, I didn't know what to do with myself." she said. "It had taken me five years to finish off Swordspoint, and in eight weeks I had the first draft of Thomas the Rhymer. I kept saying: it doesn't have to be perfect; it can be fixed if anything goes wrong. I gave it to my agent, moved to Boston, did rewrites. The rewrites were really hard work. But worth the effort because it won the World Fantasy Award. It's a very lyrical book; it's a very ballad-based book. It is in many ways what you or I would call a traditional fantasy. Not in the heroic mould, but in what I call the mythic mould. Sometimes I say I write mythic fantasy in the hopes that they'll understand I'm trying to connect with something a little older. (Swordspoint is not mythic at all. It's very urban, very mannered, very gritty.)

"Thomas the Rhymer takes place in a kind of mist-filled medieval Scotland; goes over to Elfland. It's chockful of ballads. The book itself is based on the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer and virtually every image in the book and everything that happens to the characters comes from another ballad. So ballad-fanciers could find all the hidden jokes and all the references. But I was very careful that while you read it, if you'd never heard a ballad in your life, you'd still understand and appreciate. The problem is, from people who don't know ballads, I get too much credit for invention! They think I've made it all up and I haven't. But if that's the worst thing that happens, I don't mind at all. There's wonderful stuff to draw on. The British folklore mythos, for example. I teach fantasy writing sometimes, and people write as though they're writing television scripts."

How was life after Thomas?

"Life after Thomas was completely different. In 1987 I finished the first draft of Thomas and I basically blew up my life and started over. I got a job in public radio as a presenter. I chose my own music. I started off midnights to 5 a.m. That was great; I had complete freedom. I played a mixture of classical and anything else I felt like throwing in: the Penguin Cafe Orchestra... I am now the host and presenter of a national programme that runs once a week, called Sound & Spirit. Right before that programme started, I was without a job and was getting back into writing. The programme has completely taken over my life. I script each show. All my writing has gone into that, except for what I do with Delia. Between Thomas and that I got about halfway through a novel and I published some short stories. Thomas is a one-off. I have ideas. The Swordspoint characters are very charismatic; I miss them. I was worried about repeating myself. But the characters and situations lend themselves very well to new explorations of different things. The men in Swordspoint are extremely misogynistic. I wrote a short story called 'The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death' which was published in F&SF and was reprinted in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, so it is available still. And in the book I'm writing now, it's set twenty years on from the book. So I'm still pursuing the characters and I'm still pursuing the setting, but I'm watching how it changes over time. It's called First Disguise. It's about gender. Swordspoint is all these men in their twenties. First Disguise is narrated by a fifteen year-old girl. It's a completely different viewpoint on some similar material. Delia and I have written a short story called 'The Fall of the Kings', which was published in an anthology series in the U.S. called Bending the Landscape, edited by Nicola Griffith, which takes place eighteen years after Swordspoint..."

At which point Delia Sherman arrived and Ellen had to leave.

II. Delia Sherman
How did Delia become a writer?

"The facile answer," she said, "is I cannot remember a time when I did not write. When I went away to college and I took a writing class, that pretty much stopped me writing for the next twenty years. I decided there were probably enough bad writers in the world without adding yet another one. I tried to be a scholar. I taught freshman composition for fifteen years, and in the middle of this period I was reading a lot of fantasy -- to keep my sanity. And I thought: 'Really, I can write better than this.' So I started to try. I started a novel which is sitting in my bottom drawer, and can continue to sit there as far as I'm concerned; and then I wrote some short stories which were well received. I wrote a novel that Terri Windling bought for the Ace Fantasy line, called Through A Brazen Mirror; it was published in 1989. And it disappeared without a trace shortly after. And then I wrote a bunch more short stories, but in the meantime I was writing quite an ambitious historical novel. It was published as a mainstream historical although it is essentially a fairy tale. It's a closely researched fairy tale and all the magic in it comes out of the folktale tradition of France. Folklorically speaking, it's a kitchen sink type of book: it's got everything, including a magical kingdom in which you disappear at the end, and nobody ever gets older. It starts out with 'And they lived happily ever after...' and it shows how they got there. That was called Porcelain Dove.

Although this hasn't been published in Britain yet, it "did very respectably. It was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review as one of those reviews that says, 'Here is a book. We have read it. It exists.' It was not uncomplimentary. It was not particularly complimentary. It was essentially a book report. But it was there! I am not in a position to complain. Because of distribution and because of business reasons, a lot of genre shops didn't know it existed so they didn't order it. And people who knew me would look for it in the science fiction section, and of course it wasn't there. But it was in print for four or five years, which given the current publishing climate, unless you're Stephen King, is not bad."

Her third novel has been written. "It's a young adult novel. It's a novel of the American South. Both my father's family and my mother's family are from the American South, and my mother's family lives largely in Louisiana, so I spent many summers there when I was a child. I got that language in my ears and I needed to write a Southern novel. It's a time travel novel. It's set in 1960, and the female protagonist goes back to before the American Civil War. She is treated as a slave. Because a lot of the characters were based on my family, it was very difficult to write... I cannot write a book from the beginning to the end to save my immortal soul. I actually tell stories very badly. I have a mind that tends to do all the high points and then fill in all the other places afterwards. I write the scenes that I want to write and then I figure out a way to get there. I'm not a plot-driven writer: let's put it that way. But I don't know how people are going to feel about reading an historical novel about the American Civil War anyplace outside America.

"I'll keep my fingers crossed. Anyway, it's set on a plantation, and the world was as far as you could walk in a day. It's very restricted. But it's a fantasy novel in that it creates a world that does not exist. People's basic emotions may not change, but how acceptable they are, and how they express them, do. Very much. The attitudes to who is human and who is not -- these are things that have always interested me anyway. But the subtext is so close to the surface when we are talking about slaves. Even on the best plantations (and I was keen to show, if you like, one of the better ones) slavery was a dehumanizing experience -- not only for the slaves but for the masters, too."

She had to make disturbing subject matter acceptable to a younger audience...

"I was aware, because I was writing a young adult novel, that I had to tone down the violence. But what I did seemed astonishingly violent in context. When you're writing on a smaller canvas, every brush stroke shows up. The community that would take my protagonist in and shelter her was the same as the one that would make her a slave. There were a number of advertisements for escaped slaves that said 'Blonde and blue eyed'. If your mother was a slave, you were a slave; and it didn't matter if you had blonde hair and blue eyes and a peach-coloured complexion. I think that is something that not a lot of people know. I'm very aware of wanting to tell the truth as far as I understand it. I do a lot of research to make sure it has a waving relationship with reality. I read a lot of contemporary memoirs, diaries, and I try very hard to put myself into the mindset of the people I'm writing about, however politically correct or not that might be.

"And the reason I do it is not because I'm not interested in the present. I find it difficult to understand the present without recourse to the past. Reinventing reality (which it seems to me, video does, and video games and the Internet do) -- it makes us all deracinated... When I was writing The Porcelain Dove, which is about the causes of the French Revolution, having done research on Paris in the 1790s, it was scary. Because the similarities (with the present) were so strong. I know there are many social systems in place that they did not have then. And even though we are as much in debt as they were then, it doesn't make it right that there isn't going to be a revolution. I saw this: a woman in a coat, with a little dog on a leash, stepping over a bum on the sidewalk.

"And it was like, where have I read about this recently? Lady, do you know where your head could be if you don't watch it (and probably should be!). And I think the worst excesses of the French Revolution were pretty excessive, and that people got carried away; but I also think it would have taken a miracle for it not to have happened. I had always thought, before I even started to research it, that this was something that was going to come up again and again. We haven't learned anything. We may have learned more about economics and getting in debt, but we've never learned how to take care of our poor, our helpless. It's distressing."

III. Kushner and Sherman
Ellen rejoined us, to say:
"Since we've been together we have been each other's first audience. Also when we travel together we make up little characters and adventures for them. It's a great way of spending long car trips. Talking about plot and talking about the world, and frequently what we talk about is the background of Ellen's world. It's a made up world, you can make up stuff; you can't do that in history. It's a much freer sandbox to play in than history is. As we had a number of car trips over a period of time, we realised that we had two really good characters and a lot of stuff for them to do, and gee, why don't we write something? So we started to do that. We started making up plots. It was very much like being little kids playing. You start writing because it will be fun. And then you realise you've screwed up, and you've turned your fun into work. But when it's the two of us together it goes back to being fun again. It's that thing you probably did as a kid. You know, what if... How about if... Let's pretend he... And when you're bored or cranky and there's nothing else to talk about, it's like gossiping about your friends: what do you think so-and-so would do? We could do that forever, sort of like the Bronte children. Only we thought: Let's write this down; we're writers. Do you know where we started?"

Sherman added, "I think we came up with something completely wonderful and juicy, and I said, 'I think we should write this down,' and you said, 'I'm driving and I get carsick.' I reached over -- I carry a notebook and she doesn't. I pulled it out and in very shaky handwriting I started taking notes. 'And then what did he say?' It was when we were in Amsterdam. And I suddenly grabbed the computer away from you and wrote a scene. Was that after or before? The first time we ever, ever, ever wrote something together, I think I just said, 'Let's do it...' But we're not sure. It's lost in the mists of time. Five years ago."

Kushner: "So we finally hit this one vein. We had all these characters, and we took them all out and played with them, and the thing that really grew the fastest and the biggest was, it's the descendent of one of the characters in Swordspoint having a love affair with a character in the university section of the city, which is only hinted at in Swordspoint. Delia, since she comes from an academic background, decided she wanted to know more about the university. And so I didn't quite give her carte blanche because I knew what didn't sound right when I heard it, but I sort of told her some of my ideas. We did a little research and we made some things up. And the university professor character, who she's in charge of -- she takes care of his thoughts and feelings and things like that..."

"It's divided by character."

"And each character, as it happens, is at the centre of a different society. I am in charge of the university plot and she is in charge of the high society plot. That is the surroundings for the character that she's in charge of. And when we write scenes with them together, the one who is boss over that character gets to say, 'But he'd never say that in a million years!' Even though we write each other's dialogue. I love crowd scenes. And Ellen prefers scenes between two people. So I'll have a scene with seven people, and it'll be four of mine and three of hers, or whatever. And I get to a point where a couple of hers are talking, and I don't know what the hell they're gonna say. So I know what they're supposed to be talking about, and I put in little parentheses saying 'So-and-so is very clever on the subject of X, and they have to get to this point by the time I pick up again. Deal with it.'"

Kushner said, "It's like giving each other presents. We're dying to see more of this. When you write alone you can only do it for yourself, but because there are two of us, if I come home from work and she hands me two pages, it's a wonderful gift. It's almost more wonderful than being handed a Scotch. And then I'll take the two pages and rewrite it or something, and it goes back and forth until we literally don't know anymore who has written each scene. To me it seems to go faster."

Sherman: "In fact, it does go faster because I spend endless time worrying about scenes that don't work. When I run out of steam all I do now is stop and give it to Ellen. And go and do something else."

Kushner: "Also we tend to be laborious writers. Our own fiction gets polished and polished. And this way you're only doing half of it. One person might be writing new, original material and the other one might be re-writing the old. So it does cut the labour in half. Or the other one might be making dinner, or whatever... Here's what we've done. We got started on this Swordspoint sequel. It was supposed to be a short story, but it got to a hundred pages, and the whole thing was out of hand. Trim it back to a short story length so we can sell it to a short story anthology that we know will be interested. Meanwhile we kept all the hundred pages and decided there was so much good material we were going to turn it into a novel. The short story got published in February of 97 in Bending the Landscape as the short story 'The Fall of the Kings,' which is probably what we'll call the novel as well..."

And the editing work came about how?

"Years ago," Kushner continued, "I decided I was gonna do an anthology with a young American editor named Donald Keller. And by the time the book was nearly due, both Donald and I had moved on to other things and we couldn't pull it together. Delia was living with me and was just starting out working as an editor and said she could use the experience. 'Why don't you let me pull you out of this horrible hole?' I was overwhelmed with my new radio programme and wasn't even reading the stories that Donald was sending to me, whereas Delia was able to put two a day in front of my breakfast plate and say: Read these now. One story was brilliant, but too long! I didn't know how to cut it. I knew I wanted it in, but I couldn't think of anything..."

"It was essentially a freeze-dried novel. It needed lots of water to make it a novel, but it was too complicated for a short story. I told him, essentially, to pick one of the four plots and write it. Don't forget I taught for fifteen years. I'm very good at asking questions that make somebody realise what they were trying to do in the first place. So mostly what I do is just try to persuade someone -- not to agree with me -- but to clarify what it was their original intention. It's training. It's something I learned talking to freshmen who didn't know what they wanted to write about. Talking to people who actually can write and have ideas -- which is why I wanted to go into editing after I gave up on freshmen: they weren't getting any better and I wasn't getting any younger -- was a joy to me. I love editing. Our book is called The Horns of Elfland."

"We liked it so well we're gonna do some more," Kushner finished.

Copyright © 1999 by David Mathew

David Mathew studied English at university, worked as a teacher in Cairo and Gdansk, and is now a full-time writer and journalist. He is working on a biography of Ramsey Campbell and has recently completed a novel. He is also co-designing a game show.

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