While at the 2012 BookExpo in New York last year, I spent a fair bit of time visiting the SFF Writers of America table. On one of these visits, I met Laura Anne Gilman, who was kind enough to sign a book for me. Laura writes a lot of urban fantasy-esque novels, though doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed. I decided, therefore, to get in touch for an interview, and asked her about her various writing projects, opinions on the wider speculative genre, and also received proof that she is not a cartoon character…
I thought I’d start off with something relatively straight-forward: Who is Laura Anne Gilman?
The view from inside the mirror is always slightly skewed… LAG is a 40-something writer who has, in her past present and future been a book editor, an anthologist, a wine-seller, a personal assistant/office manager, and an advertising copywriter. She’s also about 5’4” tall, slightly but solidly built, and answers to the nickname “Meerkat.” Everything else is either need-to-know, or subject to rapid change.
More seriously, I’m a native East Coaster who pretty much knew from my pre-teens that I was going to work in publishing. A friend once did my horoscope chart and said, “You… were put here to be focused on a goal.” She wasn’t wrong. Majored in history and literature, with a side of geology, went to work in the publishing industry as an assistant editor, and worked my way up the chain to Executive Editor before pitching it all to go freelance as a writer and editor in 2003.
Along the way, I picked up a bad cooking habit, a wine hobby, a tropism for travel, and the ability to work on both Mac and PC platforms without religious qualms (and my phone is an Android). Oh, and two cats, and a time-shared dog.
Your latest novel, Dragon Justice, is the next book in your Paranormal Scene Investigations series – part of the Cosa Nostradamus world. How would you introduce the series and setting to a new reader, and what can fans expect from the latest novel?
The world of the Cosa Nostradamus is pretty much our world – except that a few hundred years ago, it was determined that “magic” was actually an offshoot of electricity, which some humans could store, channel and use as a tool to make things happen. They called it current, and changed the entire magic-using world. Now, Talent could be anyone in the store or subway next to you. If they seem to be distracted around power plants or during thunderstorms, if they don’t carry cell phones, or seem to run through computers at a terrifying rate… Plus, there’re the fatae, the non-human world. They all seem to congregate in major cities, where there’s power to store, and people are less likely to notice that you’re a little… odd.
The first series, the Retrievers books, followed Wren Valere, a Talented thief, as she tried to do her job(s), but kept getting dragged into the politics and turf battles of the Talent in NYC, along with her Null (non-Talent) partner, Sergei. There are six books in that series, starting with Staying Dead.
The second series, the Paranormal Scene Investigation novels (of which Dragon Justice is part) focuses on the PUPIs – private, unaffiliated paranormal investigators, created to investigate magical crimes. They’re the first of their kind, led by two “high-res” Talent with a skill for pissing off the Powers That Be. The stories are told from the POV of a 20-something recruit named Bonnie – and in Dragon Justice, we see how the PUPI’s desire for the truth comes back to bite them on the ass, even as they’re saving the day.
They’re a mix of caper novel and suspense, with a dash of romance. I don’t like being pinned down to “this is the genre I write.”
You have another fantasy trilogy, The Vineart War Trilogy – can you tell us what this series is about, and how it differs from your other work?
Vastly, vastly different (see: not liking being pinned to one genre or style of genre). The Vineart War trilogy is epic fantasy, as opposed to my contemporary work, and is set in a world where the magicians are, basically, farmers – they’re winemakers, where the magic is ‘invested’ in the juice of the grape, shaped into wine and used as a commodity, traded and sold. Into this world, which has been held stable for nearly two thousand years by the sacrifice of a demi-god, comes a quiet threat, not with armies and swords, but blight and beasts. The crops begin to fail. Vinearts fall ill, or disappear. The new crop of magic is ruined. Someone is trying to undermine the peace, and reshape the world… but who, and how?
I really wanted to tell a story where the heroes were agrarian, not nobility or scholars or particularly “special” in terms of background. A young vineart, a merchant’s daughter, a princeling’s son, a trader-in-training, a warrior who is town between politics and his faith… And villains who are as justified in their actions, as our heroes are in theirs. Plus, the idea of a magic that is literally grown and processed rather than taught or inborn, really appealed to me. Anyone can use magic, in this world – but only craftsmen can make it.
The first book in the trilogy, Flesh And Fire, was nominated for a Nebula award for best novel. That, obviously, was a serious woo! (I lost to Paolo Bacigalupi, who had also won the Hugo that year. Hard to be upset about that…)
Another novel, Collared, which you’ve written under the pseudonym L.A. Kornetsky, is coming out in November and looks very different. What can you tell us about this novel?
This is a mystery – a “cozy” mystery, because my investigators are amateurs, not cops or PIs. Ginny (Gin) Mallard is a private concierge, a problem-solver for hire. But when she takes on a job that requires her to track down a missing man, she knows she’s in over her head, and so enlists her local bartender/people schmoozer, Teddy Tonica, to help. Along the way, they get unexpected help from their resident animals, a shar-pei named Georgie, and a stray tabby-cat named Mistress Penny-Drops. The animals are NOT talking animals (although they communicate between each other); this is purely a case of companion animals being smarter than we give them credit for – and wanting to be Helpful. I was trying very hard to avoid being “cute” with these characters, and from the reviews, it seems to have worked. Whew!
I also love this series because Gin and Teddy deal with each other as adults and peers who happen to be opposite genders. Sexual politics? Yes. But any romantic elements are purely in the eyes of the readers.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I think the better question is where don’t I draw inspiration from? People around me; bits and pieces in the news; random articles in science journals; a passing thought I might have as to “but WHY did it turn out that way?” It’s all fair game, clipped and tossed into the hopper.
Mainly, I’m fascinated by the stresses we put ourselves under, what we accept and what we reject, and why. What’s considered worthwhile, and what’s not – and how it differs for everyone. That may be why I tend to write antagonists who aren’t really villains… because if you flip the story, they’re just as much in the right as the heroes. Even the psychopaths. You just don’t want to be in their story.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I’ve always read genre – from being a wee reader, reaching for every Lloyd Alexander novels I could find, to seeing Star Wars at the all-important Influential Age, to being handed Zelazny, Asimov, Heinlein, McKillip, and others the year after, when I went to my first SF convention (it was Lunacon in 1978, specifically). My aunt and uncle were in fandom, and a friend of my mother’s was a book reviewer who specialized in SF, so I never had any lack of books to read… And so my mom fought back by piling me with mystery books, and…
So yeah, SF and F, and horror, and mystery and suspense, and romance… genre wasn’t something that was looked down on, it was just another kind of story, just like litfic (and most of what we consider ‘classic’ lit was, at its time, utterly genre. June Austen? Charles Dickens? James Fenimore Cooper? Oh yeah.)
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Enjoy. Such an… interesting word, in this context. I suspect I enjoy it more than I would, working outside the publishing industry. At least here, they understand the level of crazy that writers are prone to… (I have friends who are media and news writers. It’s scary out there. Better paid, but scary.)
I tend to treat writing the way I did any other job: I try to keep set hours, with certain structures. I know a lot of writers glory in working in their PJs, but I need to get dressed, set my brain and body up to think, “Oh, right: this is a workday…” Coffee in the morning is another mental trigger. Two cups in the morning, and I’m set. I write/edit from around eight in the morning until around 1pm, and then spend time doing administrative tasks, and then pick up again in the late afternoon until around 7pm. I try not to work in the evening, but if I’m on deadline, or a project’s on fire…
Research is more of a mixed bag. I do some before I start a project, I do some while I’m working, as I discover I need a fact or backup or an alternative, and then I do more during revisions, to make sure things are properly set… History majors. Our addiction is research, facts are our fuel...
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
There was never any doubt as to my being a writer. It’s in the blood (my mother’s family has more writers on the family tree than really should be healthy), and my folks were really supportive of my ambitions (while reminding me of how unlikely it was that I’d ever earn enough to support myself – it was a good balance of encouragement and caution). I remember starting a novel when I was… 11? Maybe 12. And I read bits of it out loud to my parents, who were, well, I think they gave useful critical feedback. I wasn’t crushed, but I knew it wasn’t ready for prime time yet!
I didn’t actually try to submit anything until I was in my early 20’s (other than non-fiction papers). I knew I wasn’t ready to say anything worth reading, yet.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
My opinion of the genre today is much the same as it was thirty years ago when I fell into it: a huge table with places set for everyone – you just have to remember that not everyone will be eating the same meal, and that’s ok. Story is Story, enjoyment is enjoyment. And I can make a solid, literary, evidence-supported argument that SF is an offshoot of Fantasy, so the Fantasy haters should just hush. J
More seriously, there’s so much room to move and work within the “speculative fiction” arena, the few people who insist on categorizing, defining, and valuing the different directions are missing the real glory of the genre: Imagination. What-If. Pushing at what’s solid until it becomes less so, until we can see beyond the everyday into possibility.
And since I tend to wander from horror (where I started) through Fantasy and SF, into romance, and on to mystery, always circling back around again, I don’t worry about fitting in. People can label my stuff after the fact; I just need to write it.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
In the pipeline are more “Gin & Tonic” mysteries (the next one, Fixed, will be out in the Fall from Simon & Schuster), and a new urban fantasy duology, Hear Of Briar and Soul Of Fire, that’s… well, it involves a geek girl, a kelpie, an unsexy werewolf, a boyfriend who’s been kidnapped by elves, and internet dating as the evil we always knew it was. Oh, and an elf-queen with Issues. Those are out in August and October of this year, from Luna.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I just started reading Julie Czerneda’s newest, A Turn Of Light (in galley form). It’s a massive (literally a pound of book) novel, so that may take me a while. In non-fiction I’ve been reading knitting books. I’m a new and rather terrible knitter, but it helps me to de-stress. And the cats think it’s great fun to attack the yarn stash…
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I have absolutely no idea. I’m not sure I want to know how much they think they know about me, to begin with… Um. [sorts through things] No, that’s still under the statute of limitations… That’s none of their business… That’s not my story to tell…
I once proved that I wasn’t a cartoon character. How about that? Cartoon characters, everyone knows, split in two and go AROUND the tree they’re about to ski into. I… did not. My poor, much-battered nose…
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
On the professional side, hopefully announcing not one but TWO new projects I can’t say anything about just yet (that’s killing me). Seriously, these are both really cool projects that I’m raring to get started on, but the contracts haven’t been signed yet, so… Argh! One will be under my byline, the other’s more or a joint project. Updates as soon as they happen!