Interview: Pamela Dean
By Mary Anne Mohanraj
1 January 2001
Mary Anne Mohanraj: I first read Pamela Dean's work many years ago, when I read her wonderful coming-of-age novel, Tam Lin. It resonated for me on many levels -- it was the story of a young female college student, away from home for the first time, dealing with love, literature, sex, fear, and possibly even some magic. I adored it so much that I promptly reread it, and then loaned it out to all my friends. Then I went hunting for more of her work. That was in 1991 or so, when the book had just come out. I was dismayed to find that her three earlier books, The Secret Country, The Hidden Land, and The Whim of the Dragon were out of print. I met Pamela not long ago at WisCon, and am excited to have the opportunity to talk with her here about her work.
Pamela Dean: I'm delighted to be able to give you a different answer to that plaint than I have been able to give these last ten years. All three books are going to be reprinted. Sharyn November, who's a YA editor at Puffin Books, is doing a line of YA [young adult] fantasy reprints, and the Secret Country books will be part of that line. I don't know any details of format or timing, but the contracts are on my agent's desk right now.
MM: That's wonderful news! I managed to find the first two of that set in used bookstores, but I'd still been searching for the third; I'm really pleased to find that it'll be available again soon. Pamela, let's start at the beginning -- when you first started writing, what were you trying to accomplish? Did you intend to become an author? If that was a goal, why?
PD: My first attempt at writing occurred when I was about eight, and my consuming desires at that point were to be either a nurse or an astronomer. I wanted to write a book because I was besotted by Jo March. I got as far as writing the table of contents, with descriptive chapter headings a la Malory, which served as a kind of plot outline; but I never actually started the book proper.
MM: [grin] I remember a similar attempt when I was about ten or so; Little Women has a lot to answer for.
PD: Mostly good, I think. Did you ever know anybody who was passionate about being like Meg or Beth, or even Amy? Maybe I only talk to writers, but I never have.
My next attempt at writing was a poem done in the fifth grade for a pop quiz in American history, to disguise the fact that I had forgotten to do my homework. What I was trying to accomplish is, I suppose, lamentably clear, but I was deeply startled to receive an A and much praise. I thought maybe I should be a poet -- the teaching idea had gone out the window by then, since I was afraid of strangers and it had finally been borne in on me that all my students would be strangers -- but I didn't do much about it except to read a great deal of poetry.
The attempt after that was in the sixth grade, where we were given a project on a subject I can't now remember. We could give a speech or write a research paper or make a drawing or sculpt something, or write a story. The other possibilities were alarming, so I wrote a story. It was heavily influenced by three or four stories I had read, but I did think it was original. I wrote it in pencil, in my execrable handwriting, with lots of erasures and additions crammed in between the lines and in the margins. I got a theoretical A with a lot of credit taken off for the sloppiness of my presentation. My teacher, an extremely intense young man much given to hyperbole, called me up after school was out and delivered a blistering lecture on how one ought to respect one's writing enough to present it cleanly enough to be read. I was once more deeply startled that anybody should think the writing was worth the trouble.
Sometime in my early teens I started writing fan fiction. The purpose there, of course, was to provide more of what I liked best about my favorite television shows. My best friend wrote stories too, and we exchanged ours and egged each other on; so for the first time I had a specific audience, though we also argued bitterly about plot lines and characterization.
MM: Can I ask which shows you wrote about? Lois Bujold writes in a charming essay about the Star Trek stories she and her best friend passed back and forth. Was it Star Trek for you too, or something else?
PD: Oh, yes, that was a fine essay. She and Lillian were a lot more energetic than I was. I did write a lot of Star Trek stuff, but not while the show was still on; it took me a while to get my mind around it and to really miss it. I wrote Man From U.N.C.L.E. stories and also, I am sorry to have to admit, a huge number of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea stories. I can still watch U.N.C.L.E. with pleasure, but Voyage makes me cringe now. What I liked about it then was not the monsters, but the enclosed society, the interactions of people crammed together in a small space; and also to some extent the technology, which was at least allegedly futuristic.
Then, sometime before the middle of ninth grade, a friend handed me a fat paperback with a strange cover illustration and said, "My aunt gave me this for my birthday. There's three of them. It looks really weird to me. You like weird books. Will you read it and tell me if I'd like it?"
It was the Ballantine paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. I had been a voracious reader, deeply delighted, stunned, bowled over by and fanatical about, all sorts of books, but nothing hit me the way Tolkien did. After I had reread it six or seven times and pressed it upon my parents and my brothers and my friends, I sat down and started writing a profoundly derivative quest fantasy. The protagonist was called Jairy, because I had been much taken with the Jirel of Joiry stories, and the core of the story was not very like Tolkien; rather, it was a crazy hodge-podge of Barbara Sleigh and Andre Norton and Lewis Carroll. The background was Tolkienesque. I ran out of steam perhaps a hundred handwritten pages in, but I still thought of it as a work in progress.
When I was in high school I ran up against my math barrier, which was trigonometry, and decided I could never be an astronomer.
MM: Heh. I was going to be an astronaut until I hit calculus. I wonder how many spec fic writers wanted to be scientists first. . .
PD: Lots of my friends wanted to be astronauts. Some of them still do. I am too claustrophobic and clumsy, myself, ever to have felt that was a reasonable goal. I think it's hard to really engage with science fiction especially and not feel some longing at some point to be a scientist. In particular the stuff I read while growing up valorizes scientists something fierce.
So I was writing a lot of poetry and sending it to magazines, and even had one or two poems published. My mother had informed me that if I was going to be a writer or poet I had to know how to type, bought me a typewriter, and made me take typing classes in high school, which I failed, but I had the typewriter, and I used it. By now I was keeping a detailed, copious journal, writing more fan fiction with a different best friend, and writing perfectly terrible short stories, a weird combination of O. Henry and Harlan Ellison, intense and incomprehensibly punchy. I understood that it was very difficult to make a living writing fiction or poetry or even both. But I had recently read C.S. Lewis's autobiography, and the point where his tutor said to his father, "You may make a scholar or a don out of him. You won't make anything else." had affected me terrifyingly. I was sure there wasn't anything else I could do, but write. So I wrote.
MM: That's reminiscent of a line in Tam Lin, when the protagonist's parents ask her if she plans to become a professor; she shrugs and says that she supposes so -- she's not likely to be good for much else. Her parents don't disagree. I loved that line; it's fascinating to find out where it came from, and it's interesting that you apply it to writing in your own life, rather than professorship. Before we dive into that book, though, I'd like to start us at the beginning. Those first three books -- what were they supposed to be exploring? The Secret Country is a tale of five children who discover that the made-up world in which they've been playing has a life of its own; in those books, what were you trying to do?
PD: I should say first of all that anything I've ever written has raised its own issues as it went along, regardless of what I might have had in mind or thought it was doing. The originating spark might not have so very much to do with the finished book, or might be a minor part of a whole different from what I'd envisioned.
My brothers and friends and I had always played a lot of storylike games -- we'd have a general plot or situation, hand out parts, act out the story. Some of the story would be constant, other parts of it would change constantly. When I took a class in Creative Writing in high school, I'd written a short story about a game like that that went weirdly wrong -- it was a bit like second-rate Shirley Jackson, I guess. I got a couple of kindly notes on its rejection slips, including one from The New Yorker. I'd felt when I was writing the story that it was a bit crammed somehow, so I wondered if a book would be better. I hadn't at that time read the Narnia books or Nesbit or Eager, all of whom I first encountered in college. But if you cross some of the family stuff in Louisa May Alcott with the magic in Barbara Sleigh's books, you can come up with the five children in the Secret Country books.
I was still in my mid-teens when I first started the story of The Secret Country. I noticed quite soon that I felt much more comfortable writing it than I had writing the story about Jairy, which was invented-world fantasy, everything having to be invented by me if I didn't want to steal it from Tolkien, which by this time I did not. It was curiously liberating to be writing about what other people were making up. It could be much stranger, contradictory, peculiar, half-dressed, and yet somehow still work.
I had originally thought the ending would be something like the ending of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" But very soon I realized that would never work, that in the terms of the story there was something real. I started to get very exercised about the responsibilities and the obligations of the imagination. That was what I wanted to explore, in the early stages of writing the book.
It got put aside for poetry, short fiction, fan fiction, and a huge sprawling plotless science fiction story that I was writing for my friend Betsy, who was writing another one for me. Then I went to college, and my journal stuttered out and my poetry shrank to a trickle, because I was reading and reading and reading. Sometime in those four years I did read Nesbit and the Narnia books and Eager, and I also, in my senior year, found and reread a host of childhood favorites I had read only in library editions and lost track of whenever we moved.
Some of these held up very well, but others I found desperately disappointing. They were short, they were transparent, they held no mystery (their original mystery having been a product of my ignorance), they were not the same books. Even the ones that seemed just as good, even if in a different way, were still short. I decided that I wanted to write a book that would superficially resemble some of the books that I had loved as a child, and that could be read as I had read books when I was a child, half understanding, scrambling around in their foothills, leaping over chasms to the next clear thing. But I also wanted that book, when the grown person who had been that child found it again, to still be long, still be mysterious, still have shadows and depth and ambiguity and a huge presence. And I dug up the manuscript of The Secret Country as it existed thus far, and went on with it.
MM: Yes -- that's one thing that's always struck me about those books. I read them as an adult, and I still found them somewhat confusing and at times opaque; they mirrored for the reader the experience of the characters, who are trying desperately to find out what's going on around them without giving away that they aren't the people they're supposed to be. In that regard, they're rather different from many of the children's spec fic I love; I think it's a great strength in your books. They're also rather dark for novels which feature adolescents; was that a concern? Was that a goal?
PD: No to both. I always tend to think that my work isn't dark enough, that I make things too bright or easy. A number of criticisms I got when I first put the early chapters through my writing group reinforced this fear. But trying for the dark never works; I found that out even before I went back to working on the Secret Country book.
MM: Heh. I wouldn't ever call those books either too bright or too easy.
PD: I've been castigated for not including much physical injury. No, really.
MM: Strange. But I still suspect you're your own harshest critic.
PD: Only in certain areas -- I'll defend my idiosyncratic pacing quite vigorously -- but it's useful to be able to worry rather than think one is perfect.
MM: Fair enough. Let's move on to Tam Lin (still my favorite). What were you trying to do with that piece?
PD: Initially, to retell the "Tam Lin" story. As I went on I realized that I was also writing a love poem, with jokes, to my college, and ultimately to the study of English literature.
MM: [smile] And that's why it's my favorite. I was an English major in college, and every time I picked up Tam Lin and reread it, it made me want to go back to grad school and do the Ph.D.
PD: You know, it hadn't quite struck me, but that may be one other reason I wrote it, or at least had such a good time writing it. I bailed out of grad school with my M.A. and always did regret it. Did you too?
MM: Heh. I did the BA, then stopped for three years. Then I did an M.F.A. and thought I was done. Two years later I gave in and went back for the Ph.D. I couldn't hold out against it forever -- and Tam Lin shows a little of why it was so hard to resist. There's such a great love of literature in that book. Does Janet's experience there reflect your own college career at all?
PD: Well, somewhat distortedly. Her dorm room and roommates in her freshman year are quite a lot like mine were. (I was delighted to read the first chapter of the work, when it was still in progress, at Minicon, and be accosted afterwards by two wide-eyed young women demanding, "Did you go to Carleton?" "Yes." "That's our room!" It was, too.)
However, right from the beginning things diverged. There were no ghosts in my freshman dormitory, and while I had meant to base the other young women on the floor on the people I had known, they became themselves with remarkable speed. Molly and Tina diverged with amazing rapidity from their models. I suppose that if you put the Unseelie Court in the Classics Department it makes waves like the point of divergence in an alternate history.
The professors weren't so very good at staying themselves either. In the case of one, William Jones, this was because I found it flatly impossible to imitate his style. But with many of the others that was not a difficulty, and they still changed.
I used my college notes and copies of letters I had written home, used them extensively; I used incidents from my life. But they were not the same incidents; they did not have the same weight or color.
MM: It felt very real to me, very true of what it felt like to be a young woman in college; that's certainly part of why the book hit so hard. The plot is complicated by sexuality and its consequences; was that ever a concern of yours, or of your publishers? Was this pitched at a young adult market, or an adult one? Did it matter?
PD: It was a concern of mine insofar as I had never written a lot of sex scenes of any sort. I had planned at least one additional sex scene that I could not get to work right and that I finally had to admit was beyond my skills at the time. But there were a couple of other scenes I also had to abandon for lack of skill, having nothing to do with sex.
The book was written at the invitation of Terri Windling, for her Fairy Tale Line, which was always intended as an adult line, so its appropriateness or lack thereof for the young-adult market was never considered.
MM: Ah, that makes sense. I'm tempted to ask you what, if anything, you might change about the book -- but I'm not going to, because I don't want to know. I'm just too fond of it. What about your next book, The Dubious Hills? It's very different from the others, in that it doesn't involve characters from our world at all. Why the change?
PD: Um, why not? No, I do see what you mean. It's really just chance that so much of my stuff involves characters from our world, though. The first story did, and it happened to take three books to tell. While I was writing them I also wrote five stories for the shared world of Liavek, which isn't our world or mine either.
MM: I didn't know that! Where can I find these?
PD: Used book stores, unfortunately. They came out originally in mass-market paperback from Ace/Berkley, between 1985 and 1990 or so. There are five, called, in order: Liavek, The Players of Luck, Wizard's Row, Spells of Binding, and Festival Week. They were edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull; his name's first, so they'd generally be under S.
The stories are a bit uneven, and some volumes are better unified than others; but there are some really good stories and poems in them, and at least from where I was sitting the world had a wonderful variety and energy to it. I loved writing my Liavek stories, although a given story would often give me more trouble than whatever novel I was working on at the same time.
It's perhaps as close as I'll ever get to collaborating, and I was able to borrow, say, some of what Gene Wolfe had invented about Liavekan theater; or use a character of Will's or Emma's that I could never have invented but could write for the space of a story; or write one half of a very strange story and let Pat Wrede for once have her head with regard to what she calls plot-noodling -- she wrote the other half of the story instead of having to firmly prevent herself telling or asking me about what had happened or would happen, and she did it better than I could have. I got to see John M. Ford take a few ideas of mine and make them infinitely more complex. I got to share a world with Jane Yolen and Walter Jon Williams and Megan Lindholm. Not to mention watching in some awe as Steve Brust and Megan found their stories merging and then suddenly crashing into Greg Frost's, so that there's a three-way collaboration in one of the later volumes.
MM: Gods -- from a writer's point of view, that just sounds marvelous.
PD: It was very frightening at first; the only way I could make myself do it was to invent a character who disliked and distrusted Liavek. Well, that and the fact that Emma, who can be very firm, informed me that I had to invent a religion. But after the first volume, it truly was marvellous.
The book I'm trying to get to be a work actually in progress right now is set in Liavek, but it will be readable without any previous knowledge of the world.
MM: Still, good to know. I'll start haunting used book stores.
PD: I also wrote a Star Trek novel, but neither the previous nor the present editor of the line wanted it as it was, and I didn't want to make the changes they wanted. I had pondered setting Tam Lin in an invented world or an alternate history, but it didn't come alive for me until I thought of my college campus.
In another sense, The Dubious Hills is all Roland Green's fault. At one time he thought of doing an anthology of short stories by Ace authors, set in the worlds of their novels, if they had written more than one book in the same setting. As it turned out Ace didn't want to publish it, but while the invitation was open I thought of Arry's story. I didn't want to use the five children -- I thought of the world of those novels not as our world but as the invented one of the Secret Country and its environs. I thought it was such a weird idea that it would be a short story, and fairly stylized, like a fairy tale. But that is not how it turned out.
MM: Well, it is a little stylized, in a spare sort of way.
PD: I see what you mean, I think -- that would be the effect of the linguistic restraints of Arry's viewpoint.
MM: Yes; the language created a different tone. But not like a fairy tale, I'd agree. I think what I liked best about that book was the whole world you created, the unique shape and feel of it. Which is funny, because one of the things I love about both Tam Lin and your latest, Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, is the way that magic creeps into what seems at first to be our purely mundane world, and then lingers at the fringes of it. What were you trying to do in this latest book? Do you feel you accomplished your goals?
PD: It's unfortunate, but I'm not sure I'm ready to say yet. The book has been out for several years, but I'm still engaged with it in a number of ways, and still feel that saying what I was trying to do is a form of spoiler for people who haven't read it. As for whether I accomplished my goals, that's a difficult question. Two of my first readers saw immediately what I was most interested in of the various things I was doing, but I haven't seen much indication that many other people have. Yet I do feel it's in there. I probably got the emphasis wrong.
Something I was trying to do that I can discuss, though I don't know how interesting it will be, was to get the time machine in the attic out of my head and into a book where it would cease to try me. Since I was about fifteen I've been writing stories with that time machine, and a boy attractive to the protagonist, though often not at all like Dominic; and I am glad to have it outside instead of inside my head finally.
I did want to look at the nature of friendship, too, but that's hardly shaped like a goal.
MM: The astronomy interests of young Gentian figure strongly in the plot. Did you know all that astronomy stuff already, or was it heavily researched? If researched, how did you go about it?
PD: I knew very little of it. I had a certain amount of passive astronomical knowledge (like passive vocabulary), but it was somewhat out of date in any case. What I did was to go to the library and get out a bunch of books about basic astronomy, telescopes, and Shoemaker-Levy, from the children's section. I also asked around among friends and email acquaintances, one of whom was kind enough to send me an old book on how to build your own telescope, since at one point I had thought Gentian was going to do that. Once I'd absorbed the children's books I went back to the library and got out some adult ones. The single best one was Burnham's Celestial Handbook, which I eventually felt I must own myself. I also haunted used bookstores for books on astronomy. I wasn't really reading for myself so much as figuring out what Gentian would have read, and what use she'd make of it once she had.
MM: That's an interesting approach, and it seems appropriate for a novel in which a precocious child is the one possessing expert knowledge. This novel felt very reminiscent of Tam Lin -- they have a similar tone, even though there are some large divergences (the importance of the Internet in the later work, for example). That made me extra-fond of it, because it reminded me of my favorite one. Do you have favorites among your novels? If so, which ones, and why?
PD: I was about to say I hadn't, but in fact I'm particularly fond of both The Whim of the Dragon and The Dubious Hills, I think probably because both of them came out much better than I expected.
MM: [smile] A very writerly answer. On another note, I believe all of your novels have featured young adults or adolescents -- why is that?
PD: Like so many of the novels including characters from our world, it wasn't a policy, it just happened that way. The stories seemed to want it.
MM: Do you plan to write about children, or about more mature adults in the future? (Part of me also wants to see you return to Janet, a few decades later . . . but I suspect that's just greediness.)
PD: Such plans as I have for the next novel include three viewpoint characters, two of whom are in their twenties and the third of whom is sixty or so. There are lot of intriguing possibilities there, but it doesn't feel alive to me yet, and may never; but one never knows, either.
MM: I'll keep my fingers crossed, then. When you're reading other people's work, whose do you enjoy?
PD: I've been suffering for the past several years from an impaired ability to read new fiction and to read certain kinds of fiction, so this answer won't necessarily be up-to-date. Answering it in full would also take pages and pages, even with the impairment. Let's see. I like a lot of local authors, including all the ones who were in the Scribblies with me: Pat Wrede, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Steven Brust, Kara Dalkey.
MM: Before you go on, could you tell us a little about Scribblies? I've heard of it, but I don't know much about it. What was/is it like? Positives? Negatives?
PD: It was a writing group, formed for critiquing and for general support, in 1980, I think; somewhere around there. Some of us had been in an earlier writing group that was at times very useful -- some of its members are in the acknowledgements to The Secret Country -- but that wasn't organized in a way that Will and Emma and I found we wanted to continue. So we put together another one, inviting Patricia Wrede, Nathan Bucklin, and Steven Brust to join us. Pat had finished a novel and was sending it around to publishers at the time; the rest of us had harbored the ambition to write but had not done very much about it and were beginning to feel anxious and oppressed by our approaching old age (most of us were in our mid-twenties, but that's how we felt).
A year later I moved to Massachusetts and we invited Kara Dalkey to join, and I participated as well as I could by mail until I moved back to Minneapolis four years later.
Later Nate dropped out to concentrate on song-writing -- he's an amazing lyricist -- and later still Pat dropped out because the group wasn't really going in a useful direction for her. The rest of us went on for quite some time, even surviving Kara's move to Colorado, until Will and Emma moved to L.A. in 1996. We set up a mailing list, and I did get Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary critiqued that way, and we also did Kara's The Heavenward Path. But it's pretty well petered out by now.
That doesn't tell you what it was like, does it? It was heady at first, really intoxicating. We were all writing different things and brought different strengths to the task of critiquing stuff. There was some sorting out of personalities, and meetings were always stressful for some people, but when things went well it was like nothing I've ever been involved in before or since, a mad mixture of shop talk, dizzying praise, lowering criticism, ideas and opinions colliding violently but making, on the whole, more light than smoke. Every single one of us had sold a novel or several short stories or both before anybody dropped out. Pat didn't owe selling her first novel to us, she did it by herself; but I doubt my own would have sold as readily if I hadn't had both encouragement to finish it and very valuable feedback on how to improve it.
We settled down a bit later once we were used to selling books, but you could still at any time get a splendid discussion or, I have to admit, a tangle of misinterpretation and occasionally outright sulking. We hardly ever did sulk when somebody said something we didn't want to hear about our own work -- we had protocols for dealing with that; if you had heard enough you would just say, "I'll think about it" and the person lecturing you would desist at once. But we would get terribly exercised about one another's work if one of us liked something and another didn't. We had some truly irreconcilable differences of aesthetics and philosophy, but we did keep respect for one another, and admiration of one another's talents.
I'm not sure the rest of them would entirely agree with me, but I at least thought I saw that we never fell entirely into two camps. There were standard arguments we had over and over, but you could never entirely count on your allies last time being your allies next time, because the books weren't the same and what the books needed wasn't the same.
I wouldn't have been without a minute of it; insofar as I'm a good writer, I wouldn't be as good or good in as many ways had it not been for them.
MM: To go back to the reading. . .
PD: I like Lois Bujold's work, and Caroline Stevermer's, and Elise Matthesen's, and Raphael Carter's, and Eleanor Arnason's later stuff, and Peg Kerr's, and Laurel Winter's. I am especially attached to John M. Ford's work. I like Joel Rosenberg's D'Shai books. I like Neil Gaiman's work. Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Peter Dickinson, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jo Walton.
MM: [smile] We just published a Jo Walton story, "Relentlessly Mundane". We like her too.
PD: I'm sorry to say that I'm very uninformed about her short fiction, but I think her poetry is perfectly brilliant. I love her command of voice, and I love the firm sense of a personality in the background. Returning to other authors, I used to be unable to get through a C.J. Cherryh book, but recently finding a member of my household disconsolate over having come to the last of the Foreigner series published so far, I tried those, and really loved them.
I'm forgetting dozens, even just in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Outside it, I like Patrick O'Brian, Dorothy Dunnett, Anthony Price. T.H. White! How could I forget him?
MM: In a similar vein, what book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
PD: All these could also go into the list above, since I still reread them from time to time -- and some of them are still working -- but for some reason they go into the "influence" list rather than the "like to read" list. And I suspect that many in the "like to read" list have also influenced my work, even strongly, but the influence may be too recent for me to have recognized it. I'd be awfully surprised if John M. Ford, Elise Matthesen, and Emma Bull's work in particular had had no influence, but I tend to compost stuff for quite a long time.
When I say an author has had a strong influence I don't mean that I write like that author or even that I really think the influence is readily visible in my own work. That said: Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, Gene Stratton Porter, Barbara Sleigh, Madeleine L'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Mary Renault, Tom Stoppard, Harlan Ellison, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Georgette Heyer, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, Homer, William Shakespeare, John Keats, T.S. Eliot, Jane Austen, Carolyn Heilbrun, Samuel R. Delany, Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Asimov, John Dover Wilson, A.E. Housman, William Butler Yeats, and probably Euripides.
I could add to this every day for a year and still probably have missed somebody. Mark Twain. J.D. Salinger. Edward Eager. Emily Bronte. Charlotte Bronte. George Eliot. Wallace Stevens. I had really better stop.
MM: [grins] I have a similar response when people ask me that question. And the ones who are foolish enough to ask which is my favorite get beaten about the head with a wet noodle. I think you've addressed some of my next question above, but just in case -- what do you think of the new work that is emerging?
PD: I'm woefully behind on new work. What I have seen of it -- Jo Walton's The King's Peace, for example, or Peg Kerr's work, or Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness, if that's still new -- I find very good indeed. John M. Ford's The Last Hot Time is just out, and is splendid. But there are new writers I haven't even looked at, and I'm behind on Wolfe, behind on Crowley, behind on Le Guin, even on Jane Yolen.
I'm sorry not to be able to give a better answer; often I don't even really know how recent a book is, only that I haven't read it yet, or that I am finally managing to read it after the first excitement is past. I prefer reading that way, really, but it does reduce the possibility, not really of discussion, but of the kind of discussion that comes from bright new discovery.
MM: What challenges do you see facing speculative fiction writers today?
PD: Well, I don't tend to think of us in the lump, mostly, and I don't know that there is any single challenge facing all writers of speculative fiction, except the usual getting over the feeling that everything has been done already.
MM: A challenge to all writers and artists, I think. We're almost at the end of this interview, but Pamela, I'd like to ask you a personal question, if you don't mind. You mentioned your household above, and I think I've heard elsewhere that you have multiple partners?
PD: I have two life partners, whom I live with, along with one of my husband's other partners; and I have another romantic interest, of going on six years' standing; my relationship with her has refused to fit into any easy category, but is nonetheless important.
MM: I have multiple partners as well, and I'm curious -- what has the reception to that been like in spec fic circles? I'm living in Utah these days, where, despite rumors to the contrary, a couple is the socially mandated norm. I miss having a community where my family was accepted. Has spec fic been welcoming of you and your family?
PD: The parts of it that I'm involved with, very much so. Minneapolis fandom has always been accepting of polyamory; my agent wished me well; nobody I've worked with at any publisher has so much as batted an eye. I can't even think of a context where it might be a problem. Well, I suppose descending on a World Fantasy Awards Banquet and insisting that all three of one's sweeties and all their sweeties be allowed to sit with one at one's publisher's table could be a difficulty, but I don't think that would be appropriate anyway; sometimes they haven't even room for each writer to bring one guest, let alone a horde.
I know I'm very lucky and to some extent sheltered -- no church, no day job, and a social group that is very accepting. (They were amazed at first, but that's perfectly reasonable.) I hope you and your family will be able to find a more congenial set of surroundings one day.
MM: Me too, and thanks for answering the rather personal question. I'm glad your experience in the spec fic community has been so positive. I think that pretty much finishes up my comments -- it's really been a pleasure talking to you, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us! I look forward eagerly to the imminent reprinting of your early work; in the interim, I'll just have go reread Tam Lin. Again. :-)
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
Visit Pamela Dean's home page.