Interview: Ann Zeddies
By Victoria McManus
23 June 2003
Ann Tonsor Zeddies spent her first three summers on a mountaintop in Idaho, and wanted to be a cowboy until she realized that the frontier had moved off the planet. Her interest in biology began at an early age, when she collected a bucket of assorted amphibians and turned them loose in the tent where she was living with her parents and younger brother. Her brother became a professional biologist; Ann chose to deal with strange lifeforms by writing science fiction.
While working on Typhon's Children and Riders of Leviathan (both written as Toni Anzetti), she swam in all of the Great Lakes, and snorkeled in the Pacific, between the Mariana Trench and the volcanic island of Pagan. She has camped in the Badlands, and ridden horses in the Huron National Forest and the vineyards of Quercy. Along with her husband and two of their four children, she earned a black belt in tae kwon do. After stays in Michigan, Kansas, and Texas, she now lives in Pennsylvania. Her newest novel is Steel Helix, a prequel set in the same universe as the Typhon books.
Victoria McManus: Let's talk about the Typhon books. Typhon's Children shows how humans have to physically change to adapt to an ocean world; you show more of the humans' encounters with seagoing lifeforms in Riders of Leviathan, and then venture out into space for Steel Helix. Did you originally intend to write three books in the same universe, or did one idea simply grow from another?
Ann Zeddies: All three books really grew from one little seed, which was the experience of swimming in Lake Michigan every summer, and always wishing I never had to go back to dry land. But I always did, because it was freezing cold, and I couldn't breathe underwater. So I started thinking, well, what would the world have to be like, such that someone could stay in the water forever. I originally wanted to create a fresh-water ocean, but as I researched the idea, I found that there would be some problems with that, so I had to make it salty after all.
Then I found the character of Dilani, who is going for a swim as the book opens. She's a fierce, difficult teenage girl, cut off from other people by her deafness. She's always pushing to go out there, and everyone tells her "No, stop, you can't do that, you'll get hurt, you must obey us." There's a lot of me in Dilani.
There's also a lot of me in Dilani's mentor, Per, a scientist who has more going on in his head than anyone realizes, including himself, and who always seems to find himself at odds with the communal wisdom.
And there's a lot of me in Subtle, the octopus-like alien, who is on a quest to find god and transformation, and encounters perplexing human beings along the way.
By the end of Typhon's Children, the transformation has begun. But then I wanted to see what would happen after transformation. Because transformations are never final; they always seem to lead right into the next problem. And Typhon is such a big world, with so many things going on in the Deep, that there were many questions left to be answered in Riders of Leviathan.
After Riders of Leviathan, my editor wanted me to write something that could be read as a stand-alone. Per, the scientist, has told the children of Typhon many strange scary stories about another place that he remembers from his own childhood, and I thought it would be interesting to go there and find out what brought Per to Typhon. So that took me to the events in Steel Helix.
VM: You went from an ocean world in Typhon's Children and Riders of Leviathan to the ultra-confined world of spacecraft and space stations in Steel Helix. How did these environments affect the stories you told?
AZ: It was a real challenge for me to go from the very open and rich environment of Typhon to the very enclosed and constrained setting of Steel Helix. I've always been intrigued by some comments made by Lynn Margulis, the biologist who works on symbiogenesis -- the idea that a big part of our evolution took place through exchanges and mergings of viral and bacterial genetic material. She thought the spaceships portrayed in media were absurd, because life could never be maintained in such a sterile environment. So one of the things I did was put my character, Piers Rameau, to work reviving the biosphere of a derelict space station.
The constrained environment also works as a great metaphor for the situation of Rameau, a man who's imprisoned inside his own head and hasn't found a way to make contact with his fellow beings. Not that I meant for it to be that way -- I think metaphors never work unless they evolve organically. After the fact, you look back and realize, oh yeah, I just created a metaphor. If you do it on purpose, there's a certain sterility to it. So I guess I just made my broken spaceship into a metaphor for writing, too.
Also, the world of Typhon is a place where humans were never meant to be. They must discover it and learn how they fit in. But all the places in Steel Helix were created and inhabited solely by humans. All the alien-seeming creatures in Steel Helix are actually humans and their toys. All the monsters are conceived of human flesh. So I'm kind of turning it around -- on Typhon, humans encounter the alien and have to become one with it somehow. In Steel Helix, the most alien thing we find is ourselves.
VM: Why did you start thinking about genetic engineering as a science-fictional basis for a book?
AZ: I don't know if I ever started thinking about it -- I've always been fascinated by the whole process. There's a long, slow conversation going on, in which all the organisms in the world exchange information and adapt to changes in each other and in the environment. Studying natural selection is one of the ways that we humans have tried to listen in on this conversation. It's the most fascinating conversation -- how could you not want to know what we are all saying to each other, over the course of millennia? Genetic engineering is a way of taking over the conversation. If we start changing ourselves, we're going to go from being the tool-user to being some kind of tool that makes itself. This is kind of mind-boggling and it certainly provides food for plenty of stories.
VM: Do you have any plans to write more about any of the genetically engineered creatures from Steel Helix?
AZ: I would love to. I'm especially interested in the Rukh, the gigantic, nearly voiceless supersoldiers, because we know so little about what's really going on in their heads. I'd love to write a story in which the Original Man clones from Steel Helix come to Typhon. That would be an interesting culture clash! However, while no one can stop me from writing the story if I want to, my publisher might not be interested in putting it out there. So it remains to be seen whether I get to do that or not.
VM: Tell me about the Toni Anzetti pseudonym. Do you consider marketing to be more difficult/complex/random now than it was previously?
AZ: Oh, poor Toni. My publisher asked me to use the Toni Anzetti pseudonym in an attempt to reset the numbers in the bookstore computers' sales figures. This has worked for some, but didn't work particularly well for me. So Toni has been officially sent off to retirement now, I think. Just as I was beginning to warm up to her. I'm afraid it will confuse readers who liked the Typhon books and will now find a prequel to that story written by Ann Tonsor Zeddies. I started out being so ignorant and naive about the marketing end of publishing. I'm less naive now, but probably not much less ignorant. I can't seem to find anyone who can tell me how it works. I don't know if marketing is more difficult now that it used to be, but I do know it's difficult! I'd like to encourage all the readers out there to remember that sales right after publication count most, so if you have any interest in a book, rush out and buy a copy immediately. Don't count on seeing it a month or two from now. It might be pulped by then.
VM: Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, or something else?
AZ: Oh, I love all my books equally, of course. But I have to say that the very first one, Deathgift, is still dear to me. I loved the character of Singer. He's a very transformative person, which is obviously something close to my heart. He changes everyone who gets close to him, one way or another. He brings out the truth in people. And he never gives up. He never stops pushing. Each time he's up against a wall, he finds one more move. I was feeling trapped when I wrote that book, and I really needed to find that unquenchable fire in myself.
I also have a special fondness for Sky Road, the sequel, in which Singer has to find a way to live in the new world he's trying to create. Again, it's about what happens after the transformation. It's my poor little orphan book, because it disappeared almost as soon as it came out, so not many people have read it.
VM: Your first novel, Deathgift, begins in what seems to be a fantasy universe, then takes a sudden turn into military sf, forcing the reader to reconsider all their assumptions about Singer's world. Why did you choose to play with genres in this way? Would you do it again?
AZ: It was my first book, so I was flying by the seat of my pants, and I don't think I pondered the fact that I was playing with genres. I just thought, oh, this would be fun to do. In retrospect, I think it worked out well, because by surprising the readers, I make them experience the same kind of shock Singer goes through, when he suddenly finds that his own world has become a strange place full of strangers, and nothing he knows makes sense any more. I would certainly do it again, if I found another good reason. I always hope that my readers like surprises and enjoy figuring things out for themselves. I hate this patronizing image of the poor reader who must be coddled or s/he'll run away screaming.
VM: You've told me you're a Tolkien fan and once participated extensively in Tolkien fandom via penpals. Has Tolkien influenced your writing?
AZ: Ha -- that's a good question, because I suddenly thought of one way he may have influenced me, and not in a good way, if you were to ask my editor. I tend to write these long journeys into my books. People are always having to travel from one place to another, and I'm interested in what they see as they go along. I'm always being urged to cut those parts out. I find myself very much in sympathy with Tolkien's whole attitude toward world-creation. It was something he loved in itself. Like him, I want a world that has its own integrity. I want a big, rich world with a life of its own, not just a series of stage sets where the plot takes place.
Also, in Tolkien's work, there's always a sense that there's more going on than the characters can see at a given moment. Small acts can have great consequences -- particularly at times when a character is in desperate straits and can either make the extra effort to help another, or not. That seems to show up in my books, too. When the characters choose compassion under stress, even in a small way, it often changes their whole situation.
Another thing I liked in Tolkien is the idea of stories within stories. That shows up a lot in Steel Helix, where Rameau begins telling the clones stories. The stories prove to be far more powerful than he thought.
VM: What led you to write a Silver Surfer tie-in story ("To See Heaven In a Wildflower")?
AZ: I always liked comics, but my parents wouldn't permit me to read them. So I used to go to my friend's house and read hers, but she only bought DC comics. I discovered the wonderful world of Marvel when I first took up with Timothy, my husband of 32 years. We were in college together, and I would go to his apartment, where he kept all his comics in grocery bags under the bed, and read them while we were supposed to be studying Greek. I so identified with the Surfer -- a cosmic, alienated figure trapped in a world he never made! Blazing across double-page spreads of stars and galaxies! And that gleaming silver body! I'm sorry to say I got a D in Greek that semester, but it was worth it. Anyway, when Keith DeCandido mentioned he was working on the anthology, I was inspired to write a story, and I was thrilled when it was accepted. The title is from a poem by William Blake, another of my favorites, so I got to combine two heroes in one story. It was very satisfying.
VM: What project(s) are you working on now?
AZ: I always wince when people ask me that, because I so rarely have anything like a well-conceived scheme. I'm just not a very good pro. I'm a tremendously hard worker and very responsible -- eldest of four, mother of four, black belt in tae kwon do, you do the math -- but my creative work comes from another place entirely. I mull things over by writing parts of them, and reading a lot, and mooning around absent-mindedly, and eventually I know what I'm doing and then I type until my fingertips bleed, and there's a book. But I'm very bad at outlining and pitching and things like that. And now you can read me the "Writing is a professional job" lecture and smack my hands. Heaven knows I've had my hands smacked by professionals, but it doesn't seem to change my ways.
I have a good idea for at least one more book in the Typhon universe, but alas, that depends on how well Steel Helix sells. If it doesn't go well, I don't think my editor will want any more of this saga. But it's there in my mind. I'm also very interested in a book about what happens to the younger generation when Earth becomes a province in an alien empire. And I'm working on a fantasy world that I like very much, where Vikings and Native Americans are exchanging physical and cultural DNA, and their gods are real. But that's about as specific as I can be right now.
Copyright © 2003 Victoria McManus
Victoria McManus lives in Philadelphia. She writes genre fiction and serves as a book reviewer for sfrevu.com. Her interview with Gregory Frost has appeared previously in Strange Horizons. She read and loved Ann Zeddies' first novel in the early 1990s, very much surprising Ann when they met a decade later, by chance, at the Millennium Philcon. Neither of them knew at the time that Ann was about to join the writing workshop of which Victoria was already a member. Sometimes life is stranger than science fiction.
Visit Ann Zeddies' website for more about her.