Kate Wilhelm Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Nebula and Hugo Award–winning author Kate Wilhelm. Kate’s latest book is By Stone, by Blade, by Fire, which is the newest novel in her popular courtroom thriller series—The Barbara Holloway mysteries. Kate is the bestselling author of dozens of novels and short-story collections, including The Good Children and a science fiction novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Her works have been adapted for television, theater, and movies and her novels and stories have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of By Stone, by Blade, by Fire, narrated by Carrington MacDuffie, simultaneously with the hardcover on December 3, 2012. Welcome, Kate. Thanks for joining us today.
KATE WILHELM: You’re very welcome. I’m happy to be here.
GG: What can readers and listeners anticipate for attorney Barbara Holloway in your new book, By Stone, by Blade, by Fire?
KW: Well, in this book we’re contriving the slide from faith—which we all understand from her childhood—into zealotry, which is becoming more and more random than fashionable apparently, and from zealotry into pathology, and maybe even in psychopathology. So that’s the enemy that she is facing in her current battle and it’s a formidable enemy. The questions asked in the novel are “who is benefiting from this kind of zealotry and pathology” and “who is harmed by it.” And that’s what she is examining.
GG: How did the character of Barbara Holloway originate?
KW: That was very curious because I had no intention ever of writing a book about a lawyer because I knew nothing about law. But I had been on a jury, and in Oregon at that time—I don’t know if it’s still the same—but at that time, we were selected for one whole month, and we had to report in every day. During the month, I sat on about six different jury panels and I observed court procedures, the way the judges treated both attorneys, the way the attorneys treated their clients and the opposition, and how they all treated the jury. It was very, very fascinating to me, and I made copious notes about what I observed. One of the things that I noticed was that the young man, who I thought was the best attorney I witnessed, abruptly quit law after one year—and quit in disillusionment. He thought law and justice were far removed, one from the other. At the same time that I was mulling this over, I was reading a good deal about the chaos theory, and I read a great book about chaos. I was mesmerized by the Mandelbrot images that we could create on our computer and Julia sets. The whole chaos theory was just fascinating to me. I had images running in my head of people being caught up in chaos theory, of a murder, of a small community up on the McKenzie River, and, behind it all, Barbara Holloway. I didn’t know who she was but she and her father kept appearing in my head and a father-daughter relationship kept presenting itself to me. Full of strain, full of stress, full of love, commitment, but always with some stress. I didn’t have any idea how to put all these things together until one day I realized that Barbara represented that young attorney who has left law, and as soon as I made her into a lawyer, all of the pieces clicked and fell into place. And I knew I had a novel with the main character, a defense attorney, who really prized justice more than the actual letter of the law, and I was free to run with her then—and that’s what I did.
GG: Now, Eugene, Oregon, is a significant part of your Barbara Holloway novels and you live there as well. What’s the appeal of the city as a setting for your novels and also for you personally?
KW: My husband was raised in Oregon. He was born in Baker and grew up in Hood River, and I had never been to the Northwest. So one year we came here on vacation just so I could see it and see the wonder he had talked about—the coast, the mountains, and all—and see for myself if it was true. And when we came into Oregon and toured the state that year, I knew I wanted to live here, and it was a tossup between Portland and Eugene. I looked at all those bridges in Portland and the traffic patterns, and I thought we had lived in major cities—we had lived in the Tampa Bay area, with the bridges and the traffic—and I thought, “I don’t want that anymore,” and neither did he. In Eugene we found lots and lots of trees, just … almost into the city center, a great university setting, university library, a big, good city library, all of the things that I valued in cities, so we opted for Eugene and moved here in 1976. I think of Eugene almost as a character in my novels because it’s important to me how people move around—where they shop, what they eat, where they get their produce, grow their own food—all the things I value personally seem to be represented here in Eugene. And they all become part of the novel—the fog, the mist, the rain, the heat of summer sometimes. They all have a telling part in the novel. I think background and everything associated with a background for me is extremely important, and Eugene just seemed the ideal background for the stories I wanted to tell. I love Eugene, and Barbara does too.
GG: Your career has spanned more than fifty-six years now and includes your role as head of an independent book publishing company, InfinityBox Press, LLC. Can you tell us how that venture developed?
KW: Oh, yes, I’d be happy to. The current novel, By Stone, by Blade, by Fire was offered to my previous publisher. They accepted it. When I got the contract, all of the electronic rights—the digital rights—were so tied to the publisher that I had no say in however they would be used, exploited, and it was clear from the contract that those rights would never revert to me. This was contrary to past contracts where after a certain length of time, the sales are diminishing to zero, rights can be reverted. But these, it was clear, would never revert to me, so I rejected the contract, withdrew the book, and I have to stress it wasn’t over money—it was over the rights that I feel should revert to the writer at some future date. So I pulled the book, and after considering it for a few weeks, I decided not to offer it to a different publisher because the state of publishing is in such flux right now. The whole world is in fact, but the microcosmic universe that I was interested in, publishing, is in such flux that no one knew what would come tomorrow or next year, and we still don’t. But I knew that any other publisher would have pretty much the same kind of contract because they have all gone the same way with retaining all of the rights that they can get and retaining them forever. After considering, I talked to my sons—two sons here in Oregon—and asked if they would like to form a publishing company with me, and ideally we would first get all of my backlog—I have over a hundred pieces of published fiction, novels and short story collections—and get all of those in electronic format for digital publishing—e-readers—and when mine were done, start with my late husband’s work and get all of his work in e-format—again, digital books for e-readers. And after that, open our doors to other writers, and we would offer a more equitable contract to everybody. We would not be greedy. We would not insist that once acquired, the rights are ours forever. So that’s what we did. My sons … I told them to think about it, not to give me an instant answer, and so after a weekend of considering it, they both got back in touch with me and they were quite enthusiastic about doing it. So last year we started that, and I think it’s going to work out.
GG: What do you think about the e-book market? How is that going so far?
KW: Well, I understand that in fiction, e-books have outsold hardcovers for about a year now, and I think that is a telling sign of the advance, if it can be called that, or just the change, if it should be called that. E-books make up a considerable share of the market. People can travel with one e-reader and a hundred or more books and I remember trips when most of the weight in my luggage was from books. So now it can fit in my purse. I don’t think it’s going away, it’s still evolving, but people love their e-readers—they’re convenient, they’re easy to read—read them from anywhere. And of course the downside of that is they need a power source—that’s unfortunate, but one of the facts of life—and the other unfortunate part is that an e-book on your e-reader is not something you can dog-ear and loan to other people. It stays on the e-reader and that’s unfortunate. I like to borrow books and I like to loan books to others. But that’s the downside. The upside far outweighs it, in my opinion. I think it has a real future, and I think, especially for fiction, the future is wide open, and as I said before, we don’t know how it will be tomorrow, we don’t know how it will be next year, but for many of us it’s extremely promising, and to keep working in virtual print is a blessing. You know, something I wrote fifty years ago might stir somebody today. So it will be there. Otherwise it would be just in the dust heap of history.
GG: When did you begin writing?
KW: When I was quite young. Twenty-eight—something like that. But I had written before that, of course. I wrote all through school and ever since I could hold a pencil in my little grubby fist. But I published—first published—when I was about twenty-eight.
GG: What’s your process like? Are you a nine to five writer? Or do you write in bursts? Or are you an impulse writer? What kind of process do you have?
KW: Well, as I described the first Barbara Holloway novel, depending on what I’m reading and what has attracted my attention, it seems that’s the basis, that’s the background, and then I begin to think of people, scenes, and they play in my head. I don’t know where they’re going or what they mean yet, but people in dialogue and people acting out various incidents and eventually they tend to coalesce into a narrative and all of this is purely mental work, nothing on paper. And when I have enough of a narrative in my head, then I have to begin sorting out the characters, and what I have to know about them, basically—the only thing I have to know at this point—is how old they are and where they come from. And if I have that much, then I can continue with the narrative. I work with scenes and once a scene has been completed, I can move on to another scene, and I leave the transition—how do I get from scene A to scene B—until much later. But I do the entire novel first in my head, and when I have it from beginning to end, then I can begin to write it, but not until then. I wouldn’t dream of starting something if I didn’t know exactly where it was going. But I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite in that mental theater in my mind. So I do the same rewriting everyone does, just not on paper. It’s a very satisfactory way of doing it because I’m telling myself stories constantly—
KW: —as I go about other things.
GG: How long does it take you, once you have the novel in your head, to get everything down on paper?
KW: A novel usually takes me a year, and this is from when I first begin thinking about it, and I’ll think about it hard for three, four, five months—six months sometimes. Then once it’s all in my head, the actual keying it in on my computer is fairly fast. I do very little drastic rewriting. I rewrite for surface, for text, for grammatical things, the transitions have to be right, and so on. But the actual physical work of getting it onto the computer and then onto a disk, onto paper—from three to six months.
GG: You’ve written in so many genres: suspense, comedy, family sagas, science fiction, and fantasy. Has there ever been a time when you didn’t have an idea for a story?
KW: No. No.
KW: No. No, stories are abundant. Topics are abundant. People say, “How do you think of so much?” How do you not think of so much? I was talking to a group of librarians one time and just casually said, “You know how ideas and stories and little incidents flip through your mind?” and I was met with so many blank looks and shakings of heads, I realized that no, not everybody has that running through their heads all the time, and I do. So possibly, it’s a defect in my brain.
GG: Well, it’s a good one, I think.
KW: Well, it’s given me a career.
GG: Who have been your biggest influences?
KW: That is almost impossible to say. I’ve been an avid reader all of my life. I had a speech defect as a child and nobody could understand me in spoken dialogue, and I told myself stories and read books. I was an early, early reader, probably because I couldn’t communicate, so I turned to books. And I was reading Dostoevsky by the time I was twelve and Kafka. It’s really hard to say. I think it was all an influence, and no one writer would stand out. It was just the whole background of my growing up and reading and reading and reading. I always tell my students it’s more important to be well read than anything else you can do as a writer. Read, read, read. So I wouldn’t pick out any one influence, just the whole mass.
GG: And when you want to sit back and relax, have a little free time, I assume you still read. What do you reach for?
KW: Right now I’m reading Mark Twain and reading him with a great deal of interest and pleasure. I recently reread Anna Karenina. I don’t do a lot of contemporary fiction reading. I’m reading The Biography of Lincoln. I read Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series recently. That was great fun.
GG: What’s your next project? Can you tell us anything about it?
KW: Right now I’m really pursuing the whole field of genetically modified foods—GMO foods and organisms—and this is going to be the backdrop for a new novel. I’m not done with the research yet and it’s an expansive field—as everyone probably knows—and full of confusion and misinformation, disinformation, and conflicting opinions. So that’s where I’m concentrating my reading aside from what I read for absolute pleasure, and that will be part of it, but I’m not sure yet how it will all work out. I’m still working on it.
GG: Well, thank you very much for talking with us today. It’s really been a pleasure. Very inspiring too.
KW: Well, good. (laughs) You’re so welcome and it was a pleasure for me.
GROVER GARDNER: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Kate Wilhelm. You can find By Stone, by Blade, by Fire and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in November 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
By Stone, by Blade, by Fire
Travis Morgan’s case seems open and shut: a plot to kill his estranged father, fundamentalist preacher Arlie Morgan, goes awry and his bullet slays an innocent bookkeeper. Two eyewitnesses seal Travis’ fate. But despite damning evidence and an admitted hatred of his father, Travis staunchly maintains his innocence.
Beseeched by his anguished mother, veteran defense attorney Barbara Holloway agrees to represent Travis. With the support of her father, attorney Frank Holloway, and crack private investigator Bailey, Barbara reveals a zealot, his ultrarich backers, and unimaginable atrocities. Travis’ case proceeds to trial, and Barbara finds herself pitted against a complacent legal system and a judge eager to simply close the case and retire. Knowing she must intervene decisively to avoid a conviction, Barbara steps squarely into the path of danger. Risking her own life, Barbara confronts the killer in order to save Travis’.