Interview: Laurel Winter
By David Soyka
4 March 2002
The "eyes" have it for Laurel Winter. Just over a decade after her first fantasy short story, "Mail Order Eyes" (Tales of the Unanticipated, Winter/Spring 1988), she won a World Fantasy Award for "Sky Eyes" (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1999). Her most recent short fiction, "The Gelatin Conspiracy," appeared in the 2001 July/August Analog. An accomplished poet, Winter has received the Science Fiction Poetry Association's Rhysling Award for both the trenchant meditations of "why goldfish shouldn't use power tools" (Asimov's December 1997) and "egg horror poem" (Asimov's 1998). Her first YA fantasy novel, Growing Wings, originally published by Houghton Mifflin and scheduled to be re-released by the Firebird imprint of Penguin Putnam, received runner-up for best children's fiction from The Society of Midland Authors and was one of five finalists for the Mythopeic Award for children's fantasy. Winter is currently at work on a new YA novel, tentatively titled Haunted Music.
David Soyka: Adolescents are particularly drawn to fantasy because the characters and situations don't fit "normal" reality. Why do some people grow out of their childhood enthusiasm for fantastic stories -- you know, the folks who sneeringly say, "Gee, I haven't read any of that stuff since I was a kid" -- while others retain their enthusiasm for this kind of literature? What's the attraction to you as both a reader and a writer?
Laurel Winter: I think some people are more drawn to conformity, to the successful business model. I've never understood that myself. The older I get, the less I worry about acting too young or dressing too young or reading too young. I have no idea why anyone would want to do it any other way, so I can't answer your question. It's a mystery. I guess I was born to be a fan. To me as a writer, in fantasy everything is available. If you can think of it, you can write it, and you aren't limited to here and now, or even there and then.
DS: As the product of a "one-room" school in which you had the same teacher for eight years, how did that sort of experience shape your world view? Any thoughts about how our traditional educational system affects kids' imaginations today?
LW: I was an odd fish in a small pond, a bookworm, a klutz. I had friends, but not soulmates. Fine, because I quite like who I am now, and I'm sure my background did a lot to create me. I don't think the school was particularly kind to imagination, but it would have taken an atomic bomb to kill mine. It would have been lovely to have a few more options, such as foreign languages or music lessons, but the lack thereof didn't hurt me in any significant way. I believe you can make opportunities for yourself at later ages, if you missed something as a kid.
One thing about growing up in such a rural setting that I think did contribute to creativity was lack of scheduled activities, not much going on, lots of free time to read or draw or design floorplans (as my sister Tracey and I frequently did) or make hideaways out on the mountainside. If kids are overly scheduled -- even in creative activities like theater -- they won't have time to come up with their own creativity. Sometimes you need to just sit there. The problem is that when kids aren't scheduled now, they sit at the computer or the TV. That wasn't an option for my family, growing up pre-computer, with two fairly fuzzy television channels. We had to form a chain to change channels: one of us would stand at the TV, another would stand in the porch, and a third would go bang on the antenna with a broomstick to adjust its orientation. The one at the TV would yell, "There! No! Back a little! Too much!" while the porch person relayed comments.
Now I'm a member of a family of total computer geeks, with I don't even know how many computers (not a good sign) and cable modem and a smart house, and I'm pretty sure that I'm too lazy to be a writer without the miracle of word processing, but I don't think the current immersion in technology totally serves the creative process. It can, but you have to make creativity a priority and I don't think most people do. I see that as one of my purposes in life, encouraging creativity. I'm the "supplier" to several teenage girls in my neighborhood for artists' canvas. The first piece is free and then I sell it to them at my cost. What a great thing, to turn someone on to art, or to encourage someone who has set it aside to make it integral again.
A friend told me at Wiscon, after I'd moderated two panels on creativity, that he was going to set up a table for his stained glass and that, instead of going to the next panel, he'd sat there and sketched designs for 18 stained glass windows. I felt a huge boost to my karma!
DS: Growing Wings started out as a short story that eventually became the novel. Did you have a YA audience in mind when you started the story? Is there any particular reason why you started your writing career with the short form and have just started writing at book length?
LW: I had the same audience in mind as always: myself. I really do write what I want to read. That said, I love to read YA and middle grade fiction, perhaps even more than adult fiction. Fortunately, I don't have to choose one or the other. I started with the short form because that's what happened when I sat down to write. My first stories were 800 or 2000 or maybe -- gasp -- 3500 words long. I've never had a shortage of ideas and I feel lucky that I wasn't compelled to write 400-page novels. At this point in my life, I'm scared of adult-length novels. Of course, 10 years ago I would have been petrified at the thought of writing something more than 40,000 words long, so that could change. Most of my ideas, currently, are for books or for poems. Not too many lend themselves to short fiction.
DS: Speaking of the short form, were your first attempts to publish in poetry or short fiction? Not that you're going to make a fortune in either one, but does it matter to you that poetry is a more difficult and less remunerative market than short fiction?
LW: My very early efforts in college and high school were poetry. I did not have much success, except in Jabberwocky, the Montana State literary journal. Of course, my clueless marketing strategy was to go through the page of the Writer's Market that my literary Uncle Dave had photocopied for me and send poems to magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker that paid the most. Not surprisingly, they rejected me.
Poetry is a labor of love -- if you make money on it, it's almost incidental. I first started sending stories -- bad stories, of course -- in 1982 to the SF magazines. I started selling in 1984, a mini-mystery to Woman's World and poems and stories to The Extra, a local free magazine, and then to Tales of the Unanticipated. I'm not very good at marketing my non-SF poetry, except for entering it in a few contests and making some money that way.
DS: Growing Wings is a parable about a girl's feelings in making the potentially terrifying transition from childhood to puberty and in having to deal not only with the discomfort that accompanies physical changes that make you feel terribly odd and out of place, but the anxiety of confronting a confusing adult future. Given the decidedly female perspective of the novel, do you think boys can identify with Linnet?
LW: I haven't heard from a lot of boys who've read the book, but my friend's 9-year-old son loved it. Several teachers in the area have read it to their classes and all the kids have liked it. I think there's enough action, especially in the second half, to carry a reader along, regardless of gender. Still, I consciously wrote it for a girl (me) even though that's not necessarily publishing wisdom. People say girls will read about boys but boys won't read about girls, so to maximize your audience put boys in. I barely mention boys in this book. As for my own sons, one has read the book and the other is reading it, but they're 15, either too old or too young to be totally captivated. A 45-year-old poet friend of mine insists that it's one of his favorite books, so they may like it better someday.
Most of my protagonists are female. Two exceptions that come to mind are Flynn, in "Fighting Gravity" (September 1998 F&SF) and Alex in "Somebody's Boyfriend" (Not the Only One, Alyson Publications, 1994). Flynn started out as a female character, but the story worked better when I made him a boy. Alex and Jeff, two young gay characters, just emerged when I was trying to write a story for a gay/lesbian anthology.
DS: What exactly makes a poem SF or Fantasy as opposed to just a poem? Is it just a question of whether it is published in Asimov's or The New Yorker?
LW: I write an extreme range of poetry. As to what is and isn't SF, that's fuzzy. "why goldfish shouldn't use power tools" is very borderline genre. I don't know what it is at all, except that I liked it and apparently so did other people, as it won the Rhysling and the Asimov's Reader's Poll Award for best poem. When I sit down to write a poem, I might intend to write SF or I might not, but some of my most successful poems (in my eyes anyway) are those that aren't so easily classified.
DS: What's your take on the Harry Potter phenomenon? Has it made things better, worse, or indifferent for anyone looking to publish in the YA genre?
LW: From my limited understanding, I think it's made things better. I love the series, although they're not quite as inventive as some people would have them. Diana Wynne Jones and Jane Yolen and Diane Duane and others all have great kid wizard characters. Still, I think it's positive, with the creation of a separate New York Times Bestseller listing for children's books because the whiny adult writers were mad about losing up to four spaces on the list for their titles -- that cracks me up.
DS: While the reviews of Growing Wings have been positive, several take aim at certain implausibilities regarding how Linnet's mother drops in and out of the narrative as well as the sudden emergence of a network of winged people. As metaphors -- the pubescent daughter who thinks her mother has abandoned her because she doesn't seem to understand what she's going through (even though, of course, she once has) and the discovery that there are "people like her" she didn't know about which is typical of the adolescent experience -- they seem to work. It may seem a bit inconsistent to talk about implausibilities in a novel about a girl growing wings, but how do you respond to this? To what extent does a work of fantasy have to conform to narrative logic in order to realistically suspend belief and effectively convey a powerful impact on the reader?
LW: I think it is important to have logical consistency. Perhaps the reviewers have a bit of a point -- that was one of the tricky bits for me in plotting, and I may not have entirely succeeded. At the same time, some reviews have mentioned that all the loose ends are not tied up, that the winged people don't figure out definitively why they are winged. It makes sense to me that not everything is known at the "end" of a story. They have speculations; they have no good way of testing those speculations; they don't reach firm conclusions. That's life!
DS: Do you think your audience understands how the wings symbolize their own physical changes and challenges on an intellectual level ("Hey, this is like what's happening to me now") or is it sufficient that it sinks in on a more visceral level? Or is it enough that they just enjoy the story and leave the intellectualizing to book reviewers?
LW: I tend to be the type of reader (and writer) who spends the vast majority of attention on story and character and lets "deeper meaning" percolate on its own in the subconscious, unless it's an issue or theme that's eating me at the moment. I don't think you can define "the audience" in any meaningful way, in terms of a collective response. "We are the Borg-book, prepare to assimilate. Resistance is futile."
DS: You describe yourself as just past 40 and "enjoying it." Do you think it's more fun to be an adult writing about kids struggling to discover their identity than actually being one?
LW: Oh, most definitely. I'm more myself now that I'm in my 40s, even more so than my 30s. I wouldn't go back. If somebody said, "Guess what, you can be 24 again," I'd run screaming in the other direction. And the teen years -- forget it. I am so glad I was not one of those people for whom high school was the pinnacle of achievement: captain of the football team, prom queen, whatever. Late bloomers rule. Growth is a process, and I expect it to continue to be a process. I never want to think -- even at 92 -- that I know everything, that there's nothing else to learn, that I don't have to change.
David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.