Lois McMaster Bujold 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 legendary New York Times bestselling author Lois McMaster Bujold. Lois is one of the most honored writers in the fields of science fiction and fantasy, winning five Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards. She has written twenty-four novels including her widely popular Miles Vorkosigan series, and her works have been adapted for television, featured in magazines, and translated into twenty-one languages. Lois has also written several short stories, novellas, and nonfiction articles. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of her latest release, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, narrated by yours truly, simultaneously with the hardcover on November 6, 2012. Welcome, Lois. Thank you for joining us today.
LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD: Thank you for inviting me.
GG: This is the fourteenth book in the Miles Vorkosigan series.
LMB: Fourteenth or sixteenth. People have to decide whether Ethan of Athos and Falling Free are outliers or part of the main line.
GG: What inspired the first book in the series?
LMB: Poverty mainly. I had been beached in Marion, Ohio, with two small children and no job, and a friend of mine, Lillian Stewart Carl, with whom I had written back in high school and junior high, had started writing again, and she had made some short story sales. I thought, “Wait a minute. We used to do this together. Maybe I could do this too. I don't even need to hire a babysitter,” which I could not afford at the time. So I buckled down and wrote. First, I wrote a novelette, which I sent off to Lillian, and it actually contained the seeds of the Vorkosigan universe. Then, I started my first novel at the end of 1982, moved forward, wrote three books in three years, and they eventually all sold to Baen in 1985.
GG: At what point did you decide to start some new series?
LMB: Well, I had always thought science fiction and fantasy were a continuum. I never felt that they were two different things and all the writers I admired wrote both. I was interested in all phases of that. The first novel that I wrote that was outside the Vorkosigan series was The Spirit Ring, which was fantasy set in fifteenth-century Italy, so it was my first essay into fantasy and also my first essay into writing a historical novel. Then I went back to the Vorkosigan series, and that was very good through the 1990s. Then, at the about the turn of the millennium, I had some different ideas and those became the Chalion series. It’s been kind of a book-by-book thing. There’s never been a grand, overarching plan for anything. Every year I make a different choice and a different decision.
GG: But the Vorkosigan series seems so well thought out, and my understanding is from the first book there was kind of a big picture there. Is that right?
LMB: Kind of. I have been a series reader all my life. I’ve certainly enjoyed many series, so that was part of the underlying sense of what a story could be, inculcated in my brain through loving … Oh, heavens—going back to the Black Stallion series when I was in grade school, and many others since—Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the Hornblower stories, C. S. Forester, and on and on. So a series was always a possibility. Then when I first started my first novel back in ’82, my entire focus was on just getting through that first novel, which was a learn-as-I-went experience, but it was clear that this was a potential universe. Science fiction—and fantasy for that matter—is interesting in that a series is defined by its setting, which makes all of mainstream literature into one giant shared-world series if you want to look at it that way. So I also had the model of Heinlein’s works. All of these works were set in the same future history and sort of tied together. This allowed him to do many kinds of ideas but still have that series coherence and series power in the marketplace, because people like series. They buy them.
GG: Do the fans’ reactions to the latest book steer you in any way?
LMB: To a degree. I always hope that the book will be liked, and generally it is liked by enough people to keep me in business. That’s kind of the basic definition of success for a writer—you’re doing well enough that you can keep writing. So that’s always been good. Feedback is a funny thing. I think you can get too much of it. On my early books, in the ’80s and early ’90s, I had very little feedback. Totally not the same world that it is now with the Internet, where you are awash in feedback. You have to learn how to ration it because I think too much is not good for my creative process. But certainly things that fans say either inspire me or make me ornery, whether I’m pulling with it or pushing against it.
GG: Where did the character of Miles Vorkosigan come from? This is one of the really memorable central characters in the science fiction canon—to my mind anyway. Where did this fascinating little guy come from?
LMB: Well, he came as other people do: he came from his parents. Back when I was writing Shards of Honor I had Aral and Cordelia as the central couple, and I knew even then that they would have a son and heir who was handicapped in some way but bright and ferociously ambitious. And that was my first image of Miles before he even had a name and before I was even done with Shards of Honor. I had overshot the end of Shards of Honor and actually got all the way up to Miles’ first birth, and then sort of rolled it back to find the ending—its current ending—which is when Aral and Cordelia settle down on Barrayar and just before the regency starts. I put those six chapters up in my attic and kind of forgot about them for a number of years. Then I went on and started The Warrior’s Apprentice, which is the book where Miles gets most of his start. And my actual first image for that book—I go by images. I get pictures in my head and then the words, code them and get them across to the next mind—the first image in my head was actually the death of Bothari, which was vaguely envisioned defending Miles as a teenager on some shuttle port tarmac somewhere and Miles having to overcome this and grow beyond. The book grew out from there, as if from a central kernel, so I kept rolling it back and rolling it back and trying to find the start of the story and eventually found where it begins now with him failing the entry exams for the military, took it forward from there. So it was a very nonlinear process, I guess.
GG: In a lot of science fiction, there’s a heavy emphasis on technology and fascination with technology, and I think that’s a lot of the allure for some people. In your books, the emphasis is on character, situations, and yet I’m always impressed with the very solid technological backdrop that seems very consistent and very well thought out. Yet, it’s downplayed. It doesn’t take center stage, and yet it’s always there and in amazing amount of detail, if you really sit down and go through it. Where do you get the ideas for the technology and what’s your background in this kind of thing?
LMB: My science fiction background goes back to age nine, so I was reading this stuff all through the ’60s and forward to the latter half of the twentieth century, so there’s a lot of that. I’ve been a science fan forever. I’ve always been interested in reading science articles, popular science. My personal background, probably one of the many majors I went through in college that I had the most exposure to was biology, and then I went on to work as a drug administration technician at a major university hospital in my twenties. And that I think is where I got the most sense of how technology meets people in the real world. I had an enormous amount of observation during that period that I didn’t know I was making. It was all going into the bag the way it does for writers. So I had developed a lot of ideas about how technology works with people by watching, because medical experiences are the closest that most people come to science fiction in their daily lives—all the things that people are trying to defeat disease and get people going again. So that all went in. Otherwise it’s just general cultural background. I pay attention to science as it is ongoing. Always my greatest interest and emphasis is in biology, genetic engineering, reproductive biology, all of those things—which are not physics, although they rest on them ultimately.
GG: Do you consult people about the hardcore technology in the books?
LMB: Occasionally yes, or other works. When I was devising the uterine replicator, which I describe in detail in the beginning of Ethan of Athos, I took myself back to my old college anatomy textbook and looked up all kinds of things about how embryology really works. So I worked out how that design would work, very much in the kind of detail other writers spend on their spaceship engines.
LMB: And I also use experts when I need something specific. For example, oddly enough, in a fantasy novel, I wanted to make sure the injuries I was giving my characters would produce the result I wanted for my plot, so I consulted a neurologist and got useful advice about how to hurt them right—
LMB: Biology people are usually very happy with my science fiction because I don’t offend them by doing things that are just not right.
GG: Okay, I’m going to ask a tricky question here. As I’ve gone through the series and issues about reproductive technology have come up, the conflict of Barrayar, which is with old-style birth versus the introduction of replicators, the role of women, Cordelia struggles to be recognized as a person in a male-dominated society, and so on. It seems to me that there are a lot of social issues wrapped into the book—into the series—and I’m always impressed with how in many ways they seem to track some of the issues and developments in our own society. Are those conscious choices on your part, or is that just the way things have developed in the world of Miles Vorkosigan?
LMB: I would say semiconscious, rather than conscious. I’m always looking at the characters first and saying “How can I challenge this character in this situation?” And I will pick what challenges I throw at them according to the nature of the character. Cordelia gets to face different challenges than Miles faces, for example. Aral faces different challenges—each according to their measure. So they come out of the characters ultimately, but it touches on things because I’m writing for an audience that is now early twenty-first century and it has to touch them as well.
GG: Ethan of Athos deals with homosexuality, and then the Betans of course are sexually liberated and very advanced in that respect. Do you ever get pushback on what some people might perceive as very liberal approaches to some of these issues?
LMB: I get pushbacks from both sides. There are people who think it’s too liberal and people who think it’s not liberal enough. Ethan of Athos is an interesting case in point because it was published in 1986, at which point it was sort of leading edge, and now the world has passed it by and young readers are approaching it with a completely different mindset than the readers did back twenty years ago. That’s a reader response problem, and it’s always shifting and changing with every audience and every book.
GG: (laughter) So this book, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, this is set before Cryoburn, which was the previous book that came out last year. There’s a sense that maybe we might be getting more in this series. Is there a chance of continuation here?
LMB: I don’t know. As I said, I do this one book and one year at a time, so I’m always writing the book of my heart and not the book I planned five years ago. It’s been a very good way of avoiding all kinds of series traps, but it does mean that I can’t make promises. I do not have another book in the pipeline at this time. I’m working on a novella, which actually is a Miles universe novella—a short piece—and it’s about halfway through and it keeps stalling. So I’m not making any promises about it. It should be fun if it gets finished. I really don’t know. It’s wide open.
GG: In terms of writing, who are your influences, not just in science fiction or fantasy, but outside of that?
LMB: Lots of stuff. Gosh, I’ve been reading for fifty-eight years or however long it has been since I was six and learned to read. Everything. Everything goes into the bag. Certainly a lot of the series writers, which I mentioned earlier—Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers. Georgette Heyer is another. She does not write series, but she wrote in a world that was unified the way that science fiction is—by its setting. She wrote—invented—Regency romances, really. And lots of nonfiction, but I read that by subject, rather than author for the most part, and that’s kind of a drunkard’s walk through everything that comes my way.
GG: There’s a lot of humor—an element of comedy of manners—in the books. Does this come from the Regency influence or … where does that stem from?
LMB: I like comedy. I think one of the first things that attracted me to science fiction, way back when I was reading my dad’s Analog magazines in the 1960s, was the occasional humorous story. One of my early favorite science fiction writers was Eric Frank Russell, who had a lot of humor in his stories and other things as well. He was never limited by humor. So I’ve had lots of models for that over time. I would always turn to the stories illustrated by Kelly Freas in Analog magazine first because they were most likely to be the funny ones. I was attracted to that as an aspect to science fiction early on. Now that’s really only a small aspect of the genre. There aren’t that many people who are doing comedy in science fiction (laughs)—“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” whatever it was—but that was an early attraction. I like that kind of worldview that allows people to laugh. Part of my lack of an agenda, I think. You know, I’m there for people’s enjoyment, not to promulgate some particular view of mine, which I will tell you in this story and make you believe.
GG: Ivan is developed in such an interesting way throughout the series. Might we see a revisitation of his adventures?
LMB: I don’t know. It’s clear that there was at least one adventure between A Civil Campaign and when Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance opened because their relationship has shifted there from when we last saw it. Other than that, it depends on what things speak to me in any particular year. I had not actually planned to write the Ivan book and kept saying evasive things when people kept asking, “Are you ever going to write an Ivan book?” And then one day the idea of “Oh, this is what should happen” bloomed in my head and I was off and running, but the day before I would have still been evading and saying, “Well…”
GG: It’s interesting that you seem to leave yourself little windows. Even as you write one book, there’s always a little window for another idea.
LMB: Prequels are interesting. They have challenges, trying to slot them in and having the books that follow never refer to them is a problem if it was a really important event … but there are these little pockets where you can put in stories earlier in the timeline, as well as going on later in the timeline—what I call the working face of the series.
GG: Thank you very much. This has been terrific and I appreciate you joining us today. Again, a joy and a pleasure, and I see that fans are already very excited about it.
LMB: Thank you.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Lois McMaster Bujold. You can find Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and all of the titles in Lois McMaster Bujold’s three series 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.
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
Captain Ivan Vorpatril is happy with his relatively uneventful bachelor’s life as a staff officer to a Barrayaran admiral. Cousin to imperial troubleshooter Miles Vorkosigan, Ivan is not far down the hereditary list for the emperorship. Thankfully, new heirs have directed that headache elsewhere, leaving Ivan to enjoy his life on Komarr, far from the byzantine court politics of his home system. But when an old friend in Barrayaran intelligence asks Ivan to protect an attractive young woman who may be on the hit list of a criminal syndicate, his chivalrous nature takes over. It seems danger and adventure have once more found Captain Vorpatril.
Tej Arqua and her half-sister and servant Rish are fleeing the violent overthrow of their clan on free-for-all planet Jackson’s Whole. Now it seems Tej may possess a secret of which even she may not be aware—a secret that could corrupt the heart of a highly regarded Barrayaran family and provide the final advantage for the thugs who seek to overthrow Tej’s homeworld. But none of Tej’s formidable adversaries have counted on Ivan Vorpatril. For behind Ivan’s façade of wry and self-effacing humor lies a true and cunning protector who will never leave a distressed lady in the lurch—making the ultimate sacrifice to keep her from harm: the treasured and hard-won freedom from his own fate as a scion of Barrayar.