Interview: Karin Lowachee

By Samantha Ling

Karin Lowachee
Photograph by Johann & Joanne LaRose. Ghetto Lamp Photography MM

Karin Lowachee is the 2001 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest winner for Warchild. Contest judge Tim Powers praised her novel as "a harrowing tale of easy treacheries and difficult loyalties, played out against a fascinating world of alien planets and deep-space cultures. Karin Lowachee brings her characters to vivid life, and their struggles are compelling."

The interview was conducted over email in May 2002.

Samantha Ling: One of the things that I find very interesting about you is that you spent nine months just south of the Arctic Circle. I am not one for extreme weather conditions and I'm always amazed at people who choose to go to places like that. Why were you there? What made you decide to go?

Karin Lowachee: I went there basically for the adventure and experience. Initially it was on an "on spec" basis -- I didn't have a specific job lined up. I had sent up my resume in the summer with the understanding that schools there are often in need of substitute teachers. After the Chicago Worldcon in 2000 I flew to Rankin Inlet and within a week I landed a job at the Community Learning Centre as an adult education teacher (of literacy and technology -- basically language arts, math, computers, and personal life management). Initially I thought I would sub in the public schools, but I met the director of the learning center and the offer to work full time on a nine-month contract, being able to interact in the community, was a great opportunity. So I stayed. What writer wouldn't jump at the chance to meet new people from a different culture (the Inuit), and learn from them?

SL: How did you find the experience?

KL: The experience is the most outstanding of my life up to this point (right up there with being published). It was fun, difficult, frustrating, challenging, extremely rewarding, and eye-opening. It was a culture shock but since I threw myself into the job pretty early I didn't have time to dwell on it for more than a week or so. As a teacher I think I learned far more from my students than they learned from me (isn't that usually the case?) In addition, I found out I'd won the contest while working up there and completed all my revisions while teaching (I arranged for my students to be in job placements, so for at least a week I didn't have to go into the school). I will always associate Warchild with my experience in the North.

SL: So what was the most interesting thing that you learned from that experience?

KL: This is a hard question. I'm still processing the experience, a year later. I don't think I can choose a "most interesting" thing. One of the things I most enjoyed about being up there was interacting with my students and co-workers and hearing stories about their growing up, and their parents, and their parents' parents.

Warchild cover

SL: In a Time Warner article you stated that Warchild was actually a back burner novel and not the novel that you were working on. What made Warchild easier to write?

KL: Maybe it was just that I didn't run out of steam through the course of the narrative; I had a lot of support and interest in Warchild that propelled me to finish. My fantasy [novel] was a sprawling third-person account drawing heavily on Hellenistic culture. It wasn't as "personal" a narrative as Warchild. Telling a story from one character's POV [as in Warchild] can be limiting, but it can also rein in the plot. For me, perhaps, it just made the storytelling more manageable.

I suspect, however, that the main reason this book worked for me was because of the protagonist. He was a puzzle I wanted to figure out. As the book grew in scope and word count, the issues being raised through his eyes became very personal for me. I wanted to explore them. So ultimately what might have made this book "easier" to write was my own passion for the story and the character at that time.

SL: This being your first novel, what was the easiest part about writing it? What was the hardest? And how did you overcome the difficult parts?

KL: I'm not sure there was any single easy thing. There are aspects of writing that are easier for me than others (or that I tackle with more enthusiasm). Characterization is one. Writing stories is a sort of psychoanalysis of my characters. More so in first person. And especially with Warchild. Jos, the main character, is just a bundle of Issues. I find that fun and exciting. World building is fun but also a bit of a chore for me. Places are neat but ultimately what draws me to writing (and reading) are the people -- all their facets, inconsistencies, opinions, and morals. I like dealing in gray areas.

Developing Jos as a real human being, not just as a character, was probably the easiest and the hardest thing. Easy in the sense that I always kind of knew if I was going off track with him without having to make lists or copious notes, and hard in the sense that he is a complicated person and I got frustrated frequently at his reticence. I tried to overcome those sticky parts by attempting to take the Author Ego out of the equation and letting the character be true to himself. I tend to plot on a psychological arc, as opposed to an events arc. I always know first where I want the character to end up psychologically, and the events that need to happen to get him there come later.

I could get technical about the "hard" things -- like getting the military stuff and martial arts stuff right (or trying to), pacing the plot, developing the alien language, which took a lot of notes and checking to make sure I was being consistent -- but those things are a bit like "instruction manual" writing. They are the nitty-gritty details that you can fix by looking on the internet or asking somebody. The truly hard (and fun) stuff for me was getting the character and his interactions right. It either felt like something Jos would say or do, or it didn't. This is a part of what I call "method writing."

I did have some trouble with the child-voice and had to conscientiously go through the first couple parts and tone down the language. Even then he sounds mature but I chalk that up to his natural maturity. Aside from voice and character stuff, probably the next "hardest" thing was the revision -- just because it took some juggling and rearranging, tearing down scenes and building them up. That's where most of the sweat was, but I was stoked to do it because a) I knew there was publication at the end of it, and b) it was going to make the book better. I wouldn't have wanted my initial draft to be published as is. Having a deadline made me tackle that stuff commando-fashion. No time to sit and second-guess myself.

SL: Your first published short story was in 1994. Were you still writing between then and the writing of Warchild?

KL: Absolutely. I had a novel-in-the-making before the fantasy previously mentioned. That one didn't go anywhere either. Maybe I'll go back to them, since I still like the core ideas. But I had never finished a novel before Warchild.

SL: How have things changed since you've won the award?

KL: I get to do cool interviews like this. And I get to meet a lot of people "in the biz" that I admire (and prove that I am more articulate on the page than I am in person). But probably the biggest overt change is that people now consider me legit as a writer. Not great, necessarily, but legit -- which is kind of amusing.

In a less obvious way, perhaps the biggest change since I've won the award is my own perspective. It's one thing to want something and think you'll love it once you get it, and another thing to experience it and go through that test. I enjoyed the entire process of publication, even when it was difficult or nerve-wracking (which wasn't very often or very bad, even in the midst of deadlines). Now, I'm aware that I'm still new to this whole thing and maybe I'll become old and jaded and cantankerous about the business end of writing, but so far it's been a lot of fun, and a challenge -- the kind that makes you improve.

SL: Warchild was originally workshopped in Online Writing Workshop (what was previously the Del Rey Online Writing Workshop). You've said that the workshop helped you immensely. How did the workshop help you? How does it differ from other online or in-person workshops? And would you suggest it to others?

KL: The workshop helped me in providing consistent feedback that wasn't colored by what people knew of you in person (which you sometimes get in live workshops, especially university ones). It also helped me make and keep deadlines. Every month the workshop had Editors' Choices and I made it my goal to have at least a chapter (or chunk of scenes, since Warchild doesn't really have chapters) finished every month. I wanted to see if people would take notice and follow the narrative through. To me this was a little indication of whether people in the book-buying world would actually buy the book. The most profound effect the workshop had on me, though, was that I met a community of writers from all over North America (and other parts of the world) who had the same passion for writing and willingness to do something about it. Many of the people I met on the workshop I still correspond with now and they continue to help me with my writing. I've also met many of them in real life. They're wonderful writers and great inspirations.

I'm not sure how the OWW differs from other online workshops because I've never participated in others. It differs from live workshops in that you get a larger cross-section of people looking at your work. I would recommend the workshop to others, but only if you go into it with goals and a willingness to learn. And if you're persistent. You really only get out of it what you put into it.

SL: Now that you've published your novel, will you continue to participate in the workshop?

KL: I stopped participating in the workshop after I completed Warchild because they were having technical difficulties at the time but mostly because I was taking a break from writing (not a long one, as it turned out). I never went back to the workshop because I started working up North and I was by then participating in two private critique groups (consisting mostly of a few workshop participants or alumni): the Sock Monkeys and the Sporks, respectively.

SL: How long have you been writing? And when did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

The Outsiders cover

KL: I've been writing stories pretty much my entire life. One of my earliest stories I wrote when I was 4, I think. I always loved to read, watch TV, go to movies, and write. They all fed off one another (and still do today). Writing is putting into words the movie I see (and hear) in my mind. The first time I consciously thought that this would be a cool thing to do for a living was around grade six, after reading The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. Apparently she published or sold that novel when she was sixteen. I was eleven at the time, or thereabouts, and I thought, "if she could do it, then so can I." It took me a bit longer, but hey.

Of course everybody tells you throughout high school that being a writer isn't exactly viable, but I went ahead anyway. I never really considered anything else, or thought I would be happy doing anything else. I love to teach, I love visual arts and film making, but writing seems to be the only thing that I don't [consider] as "work," even when it frustrates me. I have so many ideas (or people I want to psychoanalyze ) but only one lifetime, so I want to get on it.

SL: You've mentioned that C. J. Cherryh was one of your influences, as well as Maureen McHugh. What drew you to these authors?

Exile's Gate cover

KL: I read my first Cherryh novel, Exile's Gate, in grade twelve or thereabouts. Her characters and style grabbed me. Then I read Cyteen and everything in there grabbed me: the characters, the politics, the world. I just jived with it all. Stylistically I jive with her work, her characterizations are nuanced, and her aliens, of course, are brilliant. McHugh I discovered through China Mountain Zhang. How she handled POV and tense impressed me, as well as her language use. Her style is somewhat more spare or distilled than some of Cherryh's and I liked that. Mainly I love these writers because their characters somehow speak to me. I want to read about them. I can't really get through fiction where characters aren't the focus, or where they are cookie cutouts or stage dressing. Both Cherryh and McHugh, I think, take chances with their characters and present them unflinchingly, like real people, without the gloss.

SL: And who else influenced you throughout the years?

Ride With the Devil cover

KL: Other writers that have influenced me over the years are youth writers like S.E. Hinton and Robert Cormier (though mostly by osmosis as opposed to study). Also fantasy writers like Guy Gavriel Kay and Katharine Kerr. Poetry influences me. Octavio Paz definitely influenced Warchild. One of the most influential books for Warchild was a western, Ride With the Devil by Daniel Woodrell. Curiously enough (or not), I read more nonfiction than fiction when I'm writing, which is to say I have been reading a lot of nonfiction lately. Music also influences me a great deal, mostly with the mood of my stories or the character's state of mind. Watching certain movies also inspires me.

SL: What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?

KL: Right now I'm working on a sequel to Warchild, but the protagonist is different. It picks up where Warchild left off, and Jos is in it, but he isn't the one telling the story. I have a third book in mind to round off the issues I'm exploring (children in war and child exploitation) and then after that -- who knows. I can write a lot in this universe but I also have a lot of ideas for other genres. I've always written both SF and fantasy and stuff in the sub-genres of those larger labels. So I don't see myself being limited to just military SF or whatever -- or even limited to just speculative fiction. As I grow as a writer I'm sure different things will interest me and that will influence what project I do next.

My plans for the future: I will write until I'm unable to do so.

SL: And the last question. If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, besides the usual read a lot and finish what you start, what would it be?

KL: Write regardless of popular opinion in your life (unless it's encouraging popular opinion). If writing is something you need to do or you'll go crazy, don't listen to people with less imagination or drive.

Here's another one, which is kind of related: if you want to be published, then get in the habit of submitting your work and not being crushed by rejection (but do your research on who you submit to, it will save you and the editors some headaches).

 

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Samantha Ling is an Articles Editor at Strange Horizons.

Karin Lowachee was born in Guyana, South America, and grew up in Ontario, Canada. She studied English and Creative Writing at Toronto's York University, and her first short story, Culture Shock was published in the Summer 1994 issue of On Spec. Visit Karin Lowachee's Web site.